The Four Pillars (Part Four)

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New podcast episode…

Everything we have in the life of the Church is part of God’s divine prescription for our healing that allows us to come into communion with Christ and to grow in our faith. In Part Four of the Four Pillars Retreat Series, we look at how daily spiritual practices ground and nourish our faith.

Previous Episodes

You can find full audio recordings of the “Four Pillars” retreat sessions on the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church web site. You’ll also find a link to Metropolitan Tikhon’s book, “Of What Life Do We Speak?” and its Study Guide.

Obedience … There, I said it

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This year, our #StNicholasFW Summer Reading Group will be discussing the book “The Way of the Ascetics,” by the Finnish Orthodox writer Tito Colliander.

“The Way of the Ascetics” can be difficult to read, but not because Colliander’s writing is hard to understand. In fact, the book is written in very clear language. Colliander takes the mystery out of Orthodox mysticism, showing us that the spiritual life is not only for the “religious specialists” — ie., clergy and monastics — but can be applied to the life of any believer. This is what makes the book so hard to read. To paraphrase St. Paul in Romans 1: Tito Colliander shows us that, in truth, “we are without excuse.”

In this post, I want to share with you in some detail an excerpt from a the chapter of “The Way of the Ascetics.” The chapter that I’ve chosen concerns what, I think, is the least popular aspect of Eastern Orthodox spirituality… even less popular than fasting! This is the spiritual discipline of — trigger warning! hold on to something — obedience. (There, I said it.) I can just imagine all the hackles going up, but for the sake of discussion, let’s all keep an open mind as we move forward.

Before we look at the excerpt, we need to define what obedience is; and we should begin by understanding what obedience is not. There is a big difference between the spiritual discipline of obedience and acts of oppression. Oppression is being forced to meet someone else’s expectations against our will. The spiritual discipline of obedience involves willingly making the commitment to meet someone else’s expectations.

Jesus repeatedly states that he is obedient to the will of his heavenly Father. He teaches what the Father tells him to teach, he does what the Father wants him to do. And Jesus frames his obedience as an expression of love for the Father. In John 14, he says:

But that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave Me commandment, so I do. (John 14:31)

In the same way, Christ says that we show our love for him by being obedient to his teachings. Again, in John 14 we read:

He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. (John 14:21)

Oppression is about power and fear. The spiritual discipline of obedience is based on love and trust. We trust that the one we are following will not exploit or abuse us in any way, that they offer their direction to us out of love. As long as the relationship is about selfless love — the same love that God the Son has for God the Father, and that the Father has for the Son, we keep at it.

The Church Fathers describe the spiritual discipline of obedience as specialized training to strengthen our willpower. Poorly developed willpower has been a problem for humans since we were in the Garden of Eden:

God: Don’t eat the fruit from that one tree.
Eve: That fruit sure looks good. I think I’ll have some.
Adam: Well, she had some, so I guess I will to.

Throughout human history we’ve repeated this pattern over and over again. Assessing his own life, St. Paul shares an observation that, it’s safe to say, resonates with all of us:

For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. (Romans 7:15)

The spiritual discipline of obedience is God’s special training program to strengthen our willpower, so that we actually do the things we know we should be doing, and avoid that which we know we need to stay away from.

With that said, here is Tito Colliander, on obedience.

Obedience is another indispensable implement in the struggle against our selfish will…

Perhaps you ask: Whom shall I obey? The saints answer: you shall obey your leaders (Hebrews 13:17). Who are my leaders, you ask? Where shall I find any, now that it is so utterly hard to discover a genuine leader? Then the holy Fathers reply: The Church has foreseen this too. Therefore since the time of the apostles it has given us a teacher who surpasses all others and who can reach us everywhere, wherever we are and under whatever circumstances we live. Whether we be in the city or country, married or single, poor or rich, the teacher is always with us and we always have the opportunity to show him obedience. Do you wish to know his name? It is holy fasting.

God does not need our fasting. He does not even need our prayer. The Perfect cannot be thought of as suffering any lack or needing anything that we, the creatures of His making, could give Him. Nor does he crave anything from us, but, says John Chrysostom, He allows us to bring Him offerings for the sake of our own salvation.

The greatest offering we can present to the Lord is our self. We cannot do this without giving up our own will. We learn to do this through obedience, and obedience we learn through practice. The best form of practice is that provided by the Church in her prescribed fast days and seasons.

But wait! There’s more!

Besides fasting we have other teachers to whom we can show obedience. They meet us at every step in our daily life, if only we recognize their voices. Your wife wants you to take your raincoat with you: do as she wishes, to practice obedience. Your fellow-worker asks you to walk with her a little way: go with her to practice obedience. Wordlessly the infant asks for care and companionship: do as it wishes as far as you can, and thus practice obedience. A novice in a cloister could not find more opportunity for obedience than you in your own home. And likewise at your job and in your dealings with your neighbour…

Thus, make it a habit to rejoice when an opportunity for obedience offers. It is quite unnecessary to seek one… You may depend upon it that you are sent just as many opportunities for obedience as you need, and the very kind that are most suitable for you.

In Orthodox Christian thought, the Kingdom of God is not a place, it is a condition. The Kingdom of God is anywhere that God’s will reign supreme. To have the Kingdom of God within us means that in our hearts we desire nothing else than to follow God’s will at all times, to be obedient to the Lord at every moment.

The saints teach us that we hone to skill of following the One whom we cannot see, by following ones that we can see. As we read “The Way of the Ascetics” we learn that this is a universal teaching of the Holy Fathers and Mothers of our Church. Putting in a sincere effort to engage this spiritual discipline in this world opens up for us a place at the right hand of God in the world to come.

“Kill Your Darlings”

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— Dear All. Now that Orthodox Holy Week and Pascha (Easter) is over, and I’ve (just about) caught me breath, I’m getting back to these blog posts. To get things going again, here’s an excerpt from a sermon I gace at #StNicholasFW on Sunday, April 14, 2019. +FrAJ

Several years ago, Steven King wrote a book called: “On Writing: A Memoir About the Craft.” The book was part autobiography and part manual on how to write good fiction. One of the points that King made was that good writers are always willing to trim away any content that doesn’t move their story forward, even if that material is particularly dear to their hearts. In typical Steven King fashion, he put it this way:

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.

King’s advice reminds us of something we hear in one of the Psalms we read at Vespers during the Lenten season.

Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon,” is Israel’s lament during the Babylonian Captivity. Their captors make light of their suffering, taunting them to sing songs from their homeland. The People of Israel respond, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” This Psalm ends with some very disturbing language as the Israelites ask that revenge be taken on the Babylonians:

O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed! Happy the one who repays you as you have served us! Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9)

​One of the things we’ve learned in our Bible Studies this year is that scriptures often simultaneously have various levels of meaning; it’s not that one is right and the rest are wrong, they all exist together. The final words of Psalm 137 meant one thing to Israel at the time of the Babylonian Captivity, expressing their anger and discouragement and shame. The holy Fathers of the Church understand these verses at another level, one that points to something universal in the human experience.

The saints teach that every sin begins as a small whisper of a thought. These thoughts can come from the demons, who want nothing more than to see us drift away from the Lord. Often they come from our appetites, or from our senses — things that we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. Even more often, they come from our own particular unhealthy ways of thinking — from our prejudices, self-justification and narcissism, or just as often from our insecurities, paranoia, and self-loathing.

Regardless of their source, the saints teach that these quick flashes of what we “could” say or do are not sins yet, they’re just suggestions to sin. If we choose to engage these suggestions, then we’re sinning because we are willingly entertaining them. The longer we stay with these thoughts, the deeper they sink in, and they become harder and harder to shake; and sooner or later, sinful thoughts lead to sinful words and actions. Furthermore, the more we engage these behaviors, the quicker we go to them, until they inevitably become habitual. At that point these things have grown into full blown defects of character that, like the Babylonians of old, stop us from returning to our heart’s true homeland, the Kingdom of God.

The saints go on to say that the best time to handle our temptations is when they are still only tiny whispers floating around in our heads. At that point they are still in their infant stage, most vulnerable and easy to deal with. This is how the Fathers interpret the “little ones” of Psalm 137, they are temptations in their earliest and weakest stage. But even though, they are weak, we need to understand how to best address them.

We have said before that the Christian life is full of paradoxes, like the one we heard in today’s Gospel reading:

“Whoever wishes to become great shall be your servant.” (Mark 10:44)

​One of the lesser known paradoxes is that we handle temptation by not addressing it at all. Again, the final verse of Psalm 137 says:

Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock.

​Notice that it does not say, “against a rock,” but “against the rock.” The Church Fathers connect this phrase with something that we read in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, concerning how God nourished the Israelites in the journey to the Promised Land:

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)

The “rock” that we smash our “little ones” against is Christ. Only the Lord Jesus can set us free from captivity to our sins — only his Gospel, his Church, his sacraments, and his holy name: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

We can’t attempt to wrestle with our sinful thoughts by ourselves because, by wrestling with them, we have engaged them; and — again — the more we engage them (even if we’re engaging them to resist them), the harder they are to shake. We take all of our passions, all our toxic appetites, proclivities and prejudices, and throw them down at the feet of Christ as quickly as possible.

In the words of the 20th century monastic Father, St. Porfphyrios:

“You won’t become saints by hounding after evil. Ignore evil. Look towards Christ and he will save you.”