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God as Eternity

(This is the final segment in a series written for the Lent/Easter season. Once again, I have borrowed my title for this article from Met. Ware’s book, “The Orthodox Way” – in which he named the epilogue, “God as Eternity”. Unless otherwise noted, the content is mine – so please do not blame this good man for my ramblings.)

What will it be like?

Are there any among us who have not wondered?

Certainly the question of what, if anything, follows death is endemic to our species. For we who  believe the question extends even further – an eternity further.

What will heaven be like? Can we truly hope for everlasting life and love in the Presence of God?

Our Faith teaches us that we can. Yet believing this with the full depth of our being is far from easy. As St. Paul so eloquently described it:

At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13: 12)

Our knowledge, our vision at this time is so incomplete that we cannot fathom what it is that God has in store for those who love Him. And it is hard for us to have firm faith in what we cannot imagine.

Have you ever secretly wondered if heaven might be, well… boring?

The thought has crossed my mind, I am ashamed to admit. But I think this is largely because attempts to describe an eternity with God often omit two essential elements – elements that Met. Ware brought to my attention.

(C. S. Lewis brought these same elements to my attention years ago – in the story form of “The Chronicles of Narnia”. However, I don’t think that I had words to describe what it was that I learned when I read this. I simply knew that I was attracted to it.)

Met. Ware indicated that we can be sure of these two things:

First, perfection is not uniform but diversified. Secondly, perfection is not static but dynamic.

Once we turn our attention to the perfection of heaven with this understanding, it no longer has the sound of one extremely long church service.

Instead of picturing God sitting on a throne, choirs of angels singing and the rest of us endlessly bowing down in worship, we can begin to imagine a living, growing relationship that encompasses both individuality and unity.

An eternity of life similar to the relationship within the Trinity…

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Naturally I can only write this with fear and trembling. For who am I to imagine that I understand what is to come – or that I understand life within the Trinity?

Of course, I understand none of this. But what has been revealed to the Church by the grace of the Spirit certainly hints at such a life for us.

As noted earlier in this series, the Holy Trinity includes a diversity – a three-ness of Being. The Father is not the Son, the Spirit is not the Father and the Son is not the Spirit. There are three distinct Persons in our God.

While this is incomprehensible to our human reason, this diversity is necessary for God to be love.

If God were One and only One, God would not be love within Himself.

He could love Himself, the One and only, but that would be an egocentrism rather than a pouring out of life-giving love.

He could love us – but then He would need us in order to carry out His love. In that case, He would be loving, but He would not be love in His very Being.

This suggests to us that we will not cease to be individual persons when we share in the divine Life.

This may be quite appealing to any among us who fear complete annihilation or loss of self in a formless cloud of energy.

But there is another side to this invitation.

And I became particularly aware of it when traveling through airports on my way to visit my mother.

A busy airport is teeming with diversity. I look at the other people waiting in line with me as well as the others milling around me.

There are many sizes and shapes, colors and languages. Some people look pleasant, like I’d enjoy meeting them. Others appear (to my eyes) a bit unusual, puzzling or even threatening.

Despite their considerable differences, each and every one of them was created in the image and likeness of God.

And each and every one of them was created to share in the divine Life, whether they recognize this or not.

Am I ready for an eternity that would include all of them? Is there any person or group that I really don’t want to meet in heaven?

Maybe they are just a little too different for my taste. I can’t tell if that one is a male or a female. This other one has way too many tattoos. That one dressed in clergy garb? Surely a hypocrite…

Certainly God wouldn’t let them in, would He?

Or perhaps I think they don’t deserve to be there. They were simply too evil. They hurt me too much. They hurt the world too much.

Certainly God would not let them in, would He?

Yet I am assuming that He has let me in…despite my idiosyncrasies, sins and shattered soul.

He wants us all – whatever condition we are in – so that He can cleanse us, heal us, restore us.

And the diversity among us is no accident in His creation. It is, indeed, necessary in order for us to participate in a divine Life that continuously pours Itself out in love for other.

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Of course, none of us will ever become love or become God in His essence.

We who are created can never become uncreated God.

But I do not believe that this limitation in any way represents a deprivation – i.e. a “Keep Out” sign that God has posted for any of us who want to get too close.

While I certainly do not know enough to enter the theological controversies surrounding the notion of God’s essence and His energies, I will offer a simple comment or two.

First, God is not divided into two parts, the energies which we can know and the essence that we cannot know. God is undivided unity of three Persons.

Second, the essence – energy distinction may be helpful to us in our effort to understand what we cannot understand. The distinction is one made for human minds, made of human words.

Our concepts, our words, can never adequately explain or describe God. But they can sometimes guide us away from error.

For example, the well-known words of Church father, St. Athanasius (ca 298–373), “God became man that man might become God”.

To avoid heresy, we must recognize that this statement is both true and false.

Truly we are invited to share fully in the divine Life. If we were not, for what purpose did our Savior die and rise?

At the same time, it would be a grave error to imagine that, in our dying and rising with Him, we become God in the sense that God is God. Or that the Trinity would keep growing in number to include all of us.

It is paradox to our minds. It is mystery.

It is all mystery.

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As we follow the mystery and consider perfection as dynamic and not static, we may, for an instant, think we have found something we can more readily comprehend.

Of course, God is alive and active. He who creates and sustains all living beings could not be otherwise.

But haven’t we all been taught that God is unchanging?

And haven’t I written as much myself, when pointing out that God does not have changing emotional states (The impassibility of God)? And that neither our sins nor our prayers “change” God?

Can God be both dynamic and unchanging?

To our minds, this may seem impossible. But that is only because our direct experience of living beings is that they change. Whether we are observing ourselves or the creatures around us, there is not a one that fails to change as it passes through the stages of its time-bound existence.

But the life of God is necessarily different in at least one very important way.

God’s revelation of His name to Moses, “I AM”, tells us that God is not like us, a created being passing through stages. He is not in the process of “becoming” a better or more perfect being. He is and always has been perfect Being.

His life, His “activity”, does not need to change. His perfection is complete and fully alive.

But how then can we know that He is indeed dynamic? Is it not possible that He created everything and is now detached, disinterested, so to speak?

This is where the notion of God’s “energies” becomes helpful to our struggling human minds.

We know that God is dynamic, alive and active because we are surrounded by evidence of this. Creation is not over but continuously manifesting itself – every time a bud blossoms, every time a baby is born.

To again quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God…”

If we keep our eyes and hearts open, we see an endless “Theophany”, not only in creation, but in the day-to-day movements of our lives.

How could I even write, stumped as I am by my own questions, if the Spirit were not actively moving in me, unworthy instrument that I am?

The dynamic nature of God’s Being manifests itself not in Him changing, but in how the “energies” of His Being change us.

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The astute reader will note that I began writing about heaven, eternity and what comes next, but have centered most of this article on God and His perfection.

This, of course, is no coincidence. What comes next, I believe, is God.

Heaven is God and God is heaven.

Heaven is not a place (at least not as we conceive of places) but it is life in God, in His presence. It is union with Him and His creation, a union that allows us to be distinctly ourselves while fully in communion with other/Other.

It is a state of divine perfection, diverse and dynamic.

It cannot be boring because God in His Being is infinite, ever unfolding and made manifest.

To try to imagine this (which certainly we cannot), we might begin with the estimated 400,000 species of flowering plants on earth. Suppose, at my leisure, I could watch each and every one bloom?

And then suppose we move on to the butterflies on earth. With about 15,000 species of butterflies, I might discover each one as it hatches from its egg, feeds as a larva, spins its cocoon and emerges with its uniquely beautiful wings.

I think you get the picture. But of course I have only listed a few of the known created things on one planet in the estimated trillions of galaxies of the universe.

And, rather than discovering these temporary little created lives, I am writing of the infinite unfolding of the One who creates them all.

Contemplation of the boundless beauty and creative love of God overwhelms the human mind.

Our little brains, temporarily tools of our souls, cannot fathom such Being. Nor can I as an individual fathom that this glorious life is intended for me personally.

But He made us for Himself. He made us for an eternity of life and beauty and love unfolding.

Let us rejoice and be glad in Him who gave Himself up that we might share in this life.

Praise and glory and honor to Him forever.

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while it is still April (2018)

We interrupt our regularly scheduled Lenten/Easter series (which, BTW, has one more segment to go) to present our second annual “while it is still April” post in honor of National Poetry Month. The poem I am posting below is a prose poem, another happy reject from the local literary magazine. So good, so healthy for the soul, to be rejected! 

I would consider it an honor if you, dear reader, care to critique this poem or post one of your own in the comment section. While it is still April…  (The invitation extends to any original poem you wish to share – it need not have a spring or Paschal theme.) Enjoy!

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there is a darkness, a starkness, in me and around me, a nighttime of nothing, seeking something for which there is no fill. in its hunger, torn asunder, the heart impales itself upon a tree. “wait here,” the prophets whisper, “the holy One is near”. heeding, bleeding, the heart howls its pain, surrendering in vain the last of what it clings to. “i cannot bear it alone!” the heart’s final moan, soul from body rending, in the end descending – until there is no air. it is finished.

(at this point, the poet pauses…”dare i tell them what happens next? will anyone believe me?”)

there is a calm, a balm, in the morning’s breezing. from night’s despair, a fresh new air tells of life unceasing. living light, dawning bright, pierces cloud unknowing; death retreats in its defeat, everything is growing. from their height, birds take flight, beyond the river’s flowing. flowers blooming, unassuming, set the bees a-buzz. arise! arise! the angel cries, do not be afraid. love unfolds, my heart beholds a King whose name is beauty. beneath the shadow of His wings, all is as it should be.

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God as Prayer

(This is the sixth article in a series written for Lent. I’m a bit slow in my writing so here we are, well into the Easter season. But this is, I think, a good thing… Once again, I have borrowed my title for this article from Met. Ware’s chapter title in his book, “The Orthodox Way”. However, unless otherwise noted, the content is mine.)

I finally understand why God led me to Met. Ware’s book “The Orthodox Way” for my Lenten/Easter reflection.

When I first started reading the book, I had begun to wonder whether I had misunderstood the signs and selected the wrong book.

However, I persisted in reading and decided that I would use the chapter titles for my posts – since they were what had first drawn me to the book.

Certainly I’m not suggesting that this is not a fine publication. It just wasn’t quite what I had expected.

From the chapter headings, I had imagined the book to be perhaps a bit more mystical in nature. Yet, up to this point, I had experienced it as being a bit more informational, i.e. a guide to the Orthodox faith.

But now, having encountered Chapter 6, I understand why God wanted me to read this book now. Wow.

I must say I was, from the beginning, intrigued by the notion of “God as Prayer”. Like most, I am accustomed to thinking of prayer as a human activity, not something that God is. Hmm…

Allow me to lay a bit of groundwork, before leading you to what spoke to my heart.

Met. Ware first outlines the customary three stages of the spiritual Way: first, practice of the virtues; second, contemplation of nature; and third, contemplation of God Himself.

He notes that these stages should not be considered too literally nor are they necessarily sequential, requiring one to be mastered before proceeding on to the next.

My spiritual life is first and foremost a living relationship, my small person relating to the fullness of divine Person.

Mine is a life of repentance. It is necessarily sustained by the sacramental life of the Church. It is a life of love.

Such a dynamic interplay between my small efforts and the grace of God cannot be dissected and classified without something vital being lost. Yet words are all we have to help us conceptualize and share – so we use them, aware of their inadequacy.

I will not attempt to summarize all the Met. Ware has written, but to say that practice of the virtues involves our struggle, with God’s help, to break free of all that enslaves us.

And that contemplation of nature enables us to know the Creator as we recognize each created person, material object and moment as a unique and holy sacrament of God.

Met. Ware writes much that is beautiful on these topics. But there is more…

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I have long experienced an affinity for the Jesus Prayer – well before God gave me an up-close introduction to Orthodoxy.

Whether one calls it contemplative prayer or prayer of the heart, something deep within me has always longed to know God, to experience Him, to gaze upon Him, to rest in Him.

When I think back, I am astonished to think how much He has loved me, drawing me to Himself, when I have been so undeserving and lacking in gratitude.

All of my life He has been calling me to union with Him, courting me, enticing me with glimpses of His glorious beauty.

And I have been so slow to answer.

It is not that I haven’t prayed or attended church. But there has always been something of a decision being made, a choice of doing something when I feel like it.

And when I don’t feel like it, I do something else. Not something bad necessarily but something that is for me, not for us.

After all I can’t be praying all of the time, can I? I must work and certainly it is normal to want to play now and then.

Or so I thought until I came face-to-face with the counsel to “pray without ceasing”.

The thought of praying without ceasing lights my heart afire with joy.

But I confess that I have not understood it – not really.

I have learned that I must be watchful lest I interpret this admonition as meaning that I must always be doing “religious” things – compulsively attending every church service available, reading only spiritual books and resenting anything that pulls me away from these observances.

I may not know what it means to pray without ceasing – but I know that this is not what it means. At least for me, such compulsivity is more likely feeding some aspect of my ego, luring me into imagining myself to be holy – and holier than thou. Ugh…

And so it was with considerable interest that I read Met. Ware discussion of the Jesus Prayer, contemplation of God and union.

He predictably notes that it begins as a prayer of the lips which gradually “grows more inward”, becoming a mental prayer or prayer of the intellect. The intellect then “descends” into the heart and becomes united with it, so that it becomes a prayer of the heart.

All of these things I have read before, particularly in the lives and writings of the saints. But it was what Met. Ware wrote next that opened a door of understanding for me:

At this level it becomes prayer of the whole person – no longer something we think or say, but something we are: for the ultimate purpose of the spiritual Way is not just a person who says prayers from time to time, but a person who is prayer all of the time. The Jesus Prayer, that is to say, begins as a series of specific acts of prayer, but its eventual aim is to establish in the one who prays a state of prayer that is unceasing, which continues uninterrupted even in the midst of other activities. 

“A state of prayer that is unceasing…” Unceasing even through my variable moods, energy levels and motivational lapses?

Or perhaps I am not supposed to have those anymore?

No, I am human and they will always attempt to disrupt my communion with God until, in the end, He grants me complete liberation from them.

But I suspect that, if God so wills that I ever experience this state, I will pay a lot less attention than I do now to these surface ripples on the ocean of my heart’s prayer.

And yet Met. Ware takes me a step further:

Beyond this there is a further stage, when the hesychast’s prayer ceases to be the result of his own efforts, and becomes – at any rate from time to time – what Orthodox writers call “self-acting” and Western writers call “infused”. It ceases, in other words, to be “my” prayer, and becomes to a greater or lesser extent the prayer of Christ in me

I can think of no greater joy: Christ our risen Savior, resting in the Father’s love, communing in their Spirit, all from my poor and lowly heart.

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Quite naturally, Met. Ware does not tell me what I am to do in order for this to come about.

It is not something I can do or that I have any control over. And that is good…

It is completely and utterly up to God what He allows, what He brings about, in the life of my spirit.

And it is completely up to me to follow Him, whether He allows my heart to grow dull and dry or He grants me a glimpse of Christ loving Him from within me.

He who knows both my longings and my weakness will set me on the path that leads unfailingly to Him.

He asks only that I give Him myself, my entire will and being, trusting in the fullness of His love.

May it be so…

God as Spirit

(This is the fifth article in a series written for Lent. Because I’ve been a bit slow in my writing, the series will continue on into the Easter season. Once again, I have borrowed my chapter title from Met. Ware’s book, “The Orthodox Way” – but, unless otherwise noted, the content is mine.)

It seems a bit odd to me to be writing of “God as Spirit” while the Church calendar is leading us more deeply into the Passion and death of Christ.

It is at this time that we are particularly confronted with the Son, Christ Jesus our Lord, in His most vulnerable human state. He is very much Man.

As painful as it is, we cannot help but face the reality that the Person of God who became one of us suffered greatly in His humanity – physically, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually – as part of the plan for our salvation.

With the profound humanness of this time, it almost seems as though I should be waiting for Pentecost to arrive before I write about God as Spirit.

And yet I shall not wait – for the Spirit is very much part of our current encounter with the dying and rising Christ.

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In a previous chapter (“God as Creator”), Met. Ware wrote that the human person has three interdependent aspects: the body, the soul and the spirit.

In his use of this term, the soul is defined as that which animates the flesh and makes it alive. Thus all living creatures have souls – certainly the animals and perhaps the plants, as well as Homo sapiens.

The spirit, on the other hand, according to Met. Ware, is the “breath of God” in us which sets us uniquely apart from the rest of the created world. It is through this spirit that we approach God and enter into union with Him.

This spirit breathed into us by God (small “s”) must be differentiated from the Holy Spirit (capital “S”). The spirit in us is God’s creation; the Holy Spirit is God, the uncreated.

A thought came to me as I was writing the last article and struggling with how to conceptualize the reality of Jesus as both God and Man.

When Jesus was conceived of the Virgin and she asked Gabriel how this could be, the Gospel of Luke tells us that the angel replied that “the holy Spirit will come upon you” (Luke 1: 35).

Hence, it occurred to me that Jesus was fully human while living on earth, having every aspect of body and mind that we do. However, perhaps His spirit was the Spirit, thus defining Him as God while also human.

(Please bear in mind that this is just a thought of mine and not doctrine. Might even be heresy, though I hope not.)

In any event, I think we have every reason to believe that the Holy Spirit was fully with the Son, as was the Father, during His life on earth. How could it be otherwise?

The Incarnation did not fracture the Trinity such that the Son was no longer living in perfect love and unity with the Father and the Spirit. He was not temporarily absent from the Godhead.

Rather, Jesus, as the Incarnate Son, needed to experience the Father and the Spirit through His human faculties in much the same way that we do. We see this in the Gospel narratives in which He prayed aloud to the Father or went off to pray alone.

Unlike us, however, Jesus did not separate Himself from God through sin. Though we know little about the personal prayer of Jesus, it is hard to imagine it being anything other than loving communion.

In addition to Jesus relating to the Father, the Gospels also describe the Spirit’s active role in the life of Christ.

St. Luke tells us that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where He was tempted prior to beginning His ministry. At the end of the 40 days, “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit” (Luke 4:14).

Scripture also relates how the Spirit testified to the Son at Jesus’ Baptism, descending in the form of a dove.

St. Luke’s Gospel further describes how Jesus publicly acknowledged that the work of the Spirit, described by the prophet Isaiah, was being fulfilled in Him,

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; He has sent me to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners… (Isaiah 61: 1)

There are a great many other citations in Scripture but, upon reflection, I realize that the ones I most easily call to mind are those in which Jesus was promising the Holy Spirit to us.

As important as this promise and its fulfillment are, my focus on it has overshadowed any consideration of what the Holy Spirit was to Jesus.

What gave Jesus, the human being, the strength to fast for 40 days and fend off the evil one?

What enabled Jesus, son of Mary, the ability to cast out demons, cure disease and raise the dead?

Where did Jesus, a mere carpenter from Galilee, obtain so much wisdom that even the most learned rabbis could not outwit Him?

Is it not possible – no – is it not a virtual certainty, that the Holy Spirit was already for the human Jesus all that He was promised to be for us?

The Spirit, Jesus told us, is the Spirit of truth who teaches us all things. The Spirit lives in us and remains with us always. The Spirit is our Advocate, our Comforter.

As we come to realize that this Spirit was intimately a part of the life of Jesus, how we might we come to reflect anew upon the Passion of Christ?

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Many people, both children and adults, grapple with the profound suffering that Jesus experienced in His crucifixion. It troubles us deeply.

I remember how many years ago the young child of some friends of mine asked me why Jesus had to die.

Others look critically upon the Father: what kind of “loving” Father requires His Son to suffer a painful, bloody and humiliating death?

Some among us feel overwhelmed with guilt that such a “price” had to be paid for our sins – while secretly we wonder why such a price was required. God being God could certainly have saved us without His Son experiencing such agony.

While I cannot deny the horrible death that Jesus endured, I do not think we are meant to dwell on the tortures and the torments. Or at least not nearly so much as many of us were taught to do.

Jesus is not unique among humans in being betrayed or in undergoing a painful and shameful death.

Can we say, for example, that the Jews who were turned in by their neighbors, who were stripped of their families and everything they owned, beaten, starved and exterminated in Nazi concentration camps had it better?

Certainly not. If suffering were all that it took to bring us to salvation, we would have no need of Christ. There has been more than enough suffering in every generation of humanity to cover our sins.

A couple of points to consider…

First, though Jesus was the Person of the Trinity who became Incarnate, He did not do so alone.

I do not mean to suggest, of course, that the Father and the Spirit also took on flesh. However, the Persons of the Trinity did not separate themselves in the Incarnation. Where Jesus was and what He experienced as a human being was part of the life of the Trinity.

I do not believe that the Father said to the Son, “You must go and suffer to bring back my children who are enslaved to sin. The only ransom I will accept is your painful, bloody death. Fail to do My will and you will end up like them, consigned to eternal damnation.”

No, these were neither the words nor the intent of our loving Father.

Though I can only speculate about such matters, it is my sense that the Trinity as One, in the endless love we call God, longed to save us and set us free.

From the beginning of our time, this Union of Love desired for us to join them freely, while simultaneously knowing that we would fail to do so on our own.

God knew that we would fail, not only because He is omniscient and unrestrained by time, but also because He created us. As created beings, we are not independently capable of loving as He loves.

In other words, He created us in His image and likeness that we might be able share in His perfect love. But He did not create us to be Him, to be that perfect Love that belongs to the Trinity alone.

The Trinity, One in Love, knew what it would take to teach us the way of love. To find the way, we needed to experience the fullness of this love on our level.

And so He became the Way to Love among us.

God knew that His human life would be painful. It was not, however, a demand One Person made of Another. It was not a price or a ransom – at least not in the way we typically use those terms.

It was a gift, an outpouring of His Person in a supreme act of love.

The Son was not in it alone. The Father and the Spirit were ever with Him, never abandoning Him for a moment – for the desire for our salvation emerged from their loving Union.

Yet this does not mean that Jesus did not suffer – that He did not feel pain, betrayal and abandonment. As a human being, He could not help but to feel these things.

Hence, His cry from the cross (“My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”) conveys to us in truth that His death was a very real and very human one.

Have we, in times of great pain or anguish, ever experienced God as absent?

Probably all of us have or will undergo this experience of divine abandonment at some point.

Yet our feeling of abandonment does not mean that God actually abandons – or that the Father and Spirit left Christ on His own in His agony.

This is not to say the Persons of the Trinity suffered. As noted elsewhere, God does not suffer. But this need not trouble us – for it is not co-suffering that sustains us nor would that be what sustained Jesus in His Passion.

Jesus was, I believe, ever in Love and sustained by Love throughout hardships of His human experience.

He loved freely, voluntarily, as a human being. He did what we were unable to do – and did so by the power of the Spirit.

Having chosen to come among us, He first gave Himself as food for our journey and then gave His life to be the Way for us to follow.

All so that we might enter everlasting life and love with Him.

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I know I haven’t explained it well. How could I, when it is a mystery I do not understand myself?

If the saving act of Christ is more about love than suffering, should I still feel sorrow for my sins? Should I let go of the nagging guilt I feel because Jesus endured all of this for me?

Yes and yes.

Certainly I must feel sorrow for my sins. The Gospel is very clear about the need for repentance.

The problem for so many of us, however, is that we tend to associate repentance with guilt and shame – to the point that they seem synonymous.

Perhaps this cannot be totally avoided. To fully acknowledge my need of salvation, I cannot hide from the pain that my sins and weaknesses have caused myself and others.

But this is only the beginning, the very first step.

Once acknowledged, to repent is to change – to change my mind, to turn my heart in a completely different direction.

If I am paralyzed by my guilt and shame, I will not be able to do this. I will be so focused on myself and my defects that I won’t see the Loving One standing right before me, beckoning me to follow.

It might surprise us to learn that this experience is a taste of hell. Yes – hell. To be in the presence of Holy Love and be so focused on self that I do not know the Love is there.

Encountering sinners, Jesus gave the simplest and most guilt-free of messages: “Your sins are forgiven.” “From now on, avoid this sin.” “Follow Me.”

His sternest warnings were to those who had their eyes closed. How else could He try to awaken those who tried to protect their egos by hiding behind a false holiness?

My ego, my will – I must give it to God. I cannot trust myself to hold onto it.

It not only pervades my sin – but also my repentance. What else is all of that guilt and shame but another tendril of evil trying to pull me away from Him?

In the end, it is only love that saves. I must surrender my ego, my will. I must allow it to be crucified with Christ – not because it is demanded of me but because it is the only real gift of love that I have to offer.

I fear, as perhaps Jesus feared, not having the strength, the courage, the love in me to do this.

In fact, I know I do not.

But never was I expected to do this alone.

The Way has come and shown HImself to me.

The Father listens to my every prayer.

The Spirit dwells within me always, teaching and protecting and comforting me.

And so I surrender…to the love of the Father, by the power of the Spirit, in union with Christ our Savior to Whom belongs all glory and praise.

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God as Man

(This is the fourth article in a series written for Lent. Having stolen Met. Ware’s chapter titles, I am finding that my writing bears limited resemblance to what he has written in his book, “The Orthodox Way”. Hence, do not blame him for the content that follows.)

I find myself struggling to write and I am not sure why. I ask God’s grace to be with me and guide me this evening as I begin again.

Perhaps the most obvious source of my difficulty is simply not knowing what to say. That God became man in the person of Christ is central to our faith and yet we can no more explain it than we can explain the Trinity.

Sadly, our efforts to do so have too often created divisions among us. Just as regrettable are the many absurd if not delusional notions out there that lead more people to dismiss the faith than to embrace it.

I do not want to fall into either of these traps.

If my words do not encourage others in the faith, they ought not be written.

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Let me begin with these oft-quoted words of St. John the Evangelist:

For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life. (John 3:16)

While these words have undoubtedly consoled many Christians, I find myself struggling with them – not because I don’t believe their message to be true but more because I do not understand them.

What does it mean for God to have a Son, an “only Son”, yet one who has existed from the beginning?

Certainly we do not believe that God had a wife, engaged in a human reproductive act and she produced a son who carried His genes.

This kind of father-son story would be more characteristic of the tribal gods that surrounded the ancient people of Israel. God’s children were led along a very different path in the revelation of the One God.

What emerges in the account we are given of God sending His Son to save us are certain core truths – but truths cloaked in mystery.

For us to come to salvation, our Messiah, our Christ, needed to be both fully God and fully human.

For Jesus to be fully human, He needed to be born of a human mother, to take on flesh and blood in the very real sense of the word.

If He had come among us in any other way, e.g. bursting through the clouds on a chariot of fire, we might have been impressed – but we would have doubted that He was truly human since we would not know where He came from.

For Jesus to be fully God, His birth of a human mother needed to be different from every other birth. He needed to come forth from God – to be sent or “given”. Hence, He was born of a virgin.

Did Father then “create” Jesus? Did He “beget” Him?

It seems that the answer to this question is both yes and no – a paradox that again bespeaks a  profound mystery that transcends human reasoning.

As part of the Trinity, Jesus is uncreated God. There was never a time when He did not exist.

As a member of the human race, Jesus was created. He began life as a fertilized egg in His mother, developing a body like any other, being born into human history on a specific date. There was a time when He did not exist – or at least He did not exist as a human being in time.

Our confusion occurs, of course, because we cannot see outside of time. The latter makes sense to us, the former goes beyond our understanding.

I wonder if this is why the words “Father” and “Son” were given to us. They are words that we can understand and relate to.

If we were told that our God has three persons who love each other and that we are to love each of them, we would have no way of conceptualizing this sort of love.

But we do understand the love of a father for his son and we can comprehend the enormity of the gift when a father sacrifices his son to save others.

From a Biblical perspective, we have been given the story of Abraham and Isaac to prefigure our Father’s sacrifice of His Son.

As important as this foreshadowing is, let us consider a scenario closer to our own experience.

A father sends his son into a burning building to try to rescue the children trapped inside, knowing that the odds are great that his son will not make it out alive. It is his only child he sends.

A mother sends her son to rescue a young child caught in the crossfire of warring gangs outside their home, knowing well that he may take a bullet. It is her only child she sends.

Let’s imagine that both sons die in the rescue attempts. The grief of these parents would be overwhelming. They would feel quite literally that they had sacrificed a part of their very own selves that others might live.

But the gift of God our Father far exceeds the sacrifices of these hypothetical people. For He sent His Son, not for the innocents, but to rescue the arsonist who set the house on fire in the first scene and to save the gang members whose violence terrorized the neighborhood in the second.

He gave completely of Himself in order to save those of us who don’t think we need saving. He poured Himself out in the person of Jesus for those among us who may not even care to be saved.

He wants it for us – because He knows far better than we do what we need if we are to experience the fullness of joy.

One might question though how this is a sacrifice for God. After all, He remains God and the death of His Son is but temporary. He knows from the beginning that Jesus will be raised.

As much as this question lures us with its human logic, I cannot let myself be drawn into this erroneous thinking. It reduces God to the level of our humanity.

Although all human metaphors for sacrificing one’s child involve heart-rending suffering, we cannot conclude from them that God suffers when giving us His Son. (See my previous article,  The impassibility of God, for an extensive discussion on whether God suffers.)

The words of John’s Gospel are not to teach us how much God suffers but how complete and total is His love.

The evangelist has no choice but to use human words and imagery to help us understand what we have been given – and surely even they fall short of the reality.

The reality of such a love is beyond our imagining.

Not only has it been given to us in the person of Jesus, but we are invited to have a full share in this love.

Jesus, as God-as-man among us, not only reveals to us who God is but also reveals to us who we are.

Though we were made in the image and likeness of God, the corruption of sin has kept this from being fulfilled in us. Having entered our death voluntarily, Jesus’ absolute act of love brings to perfection this image and likeness in His human self.

He does not merely rescue us from death, as though rescuing us from a burning house, so that we can later die again.

Rather, He demonstrates in His own person what we were made to be and becomes the Way we are to follow to arrive at the eternal Love.

Indeed. “God so loved the world that He gave his only Son…”

To Him be glory. Amen.

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God as Creator

(This is the third article in a series written for Lent, 2018. I have borrowed the chapter titles from Met. Ware’s book “The Orthodox Way” and sometimes reference his content. However, I go off in my own directions and therefore am responsible for the content unless otherwise noted.)

The gift of Creation is so magnificent and mysterious that we will never fully grasp it. Even less can we comprehend the Creator or the process by which all things come to be.

In this chapter of Met. Ware’s book, I encountered discussion of many topics I have already written on at some length. Though I cannot claim to have written well, I think it is best to leave well enough alone – rather than rehash hypotheses about the book of Genesis, good and evil, and so on.

However, there is one (seemingly) small part of Creation that I have not written of and would like to highlight. May God be merciful and permit me to share a few thoughts about this great gift given to humanity.

Met. Ware provides the following quote from Thomas Merton, a monk of the Western Church:

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak his name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all of the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…The gate of heaven is everywhere.  (from “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander” by Thomas Merton.)

Several things drew me to this passage. First, I felt a personal affinity to it because of Merton’s use of the term “nothingness”, given that “nothing” is my word for 2018. I was intrigued that Merton termed this most sacred aspect of our created selves a nothingness. This set me to wondering why he did so.

His notion of a point or spark is further reinforced by his description of it as an absolute poverty. How can he say that of what he later refers to as the “pure glory of God in us” and “his name written in us”?

What could be of greater value than His name within us, His pure glory shining within each and every one of us?

If indeed the Lord God created the human person with such a point, would this not be far greater than any riches we can conceive of?

How then can it be a nothingness or a poverty?

Merton seems to recognize the apparent incongruity of his image – for he then proceeds to portray it as like a diamond “blazing with the invisible light of heaven”.

In other words, out of all of His Creation, this spark implanted in the human person is simultaneously the greatest of riches and the most profound of poverties.

This paradox, I believe, is what finally seized my attention, rendering inevitable further reflection on this one (seemingly) small detail of God’s Creation of humanity.

One key consideration should be noted before delving further into our topic, however. And that whether this point or spark actually exists.

There are no means by which we can view or measure it, nor will there ever be any method of proving its existence.

Yet the implications for believing that it is there are enormous. More about that later…

I cannot help but conclude that Merton’s words point to a truth inseparable from our belief in God as the Creator who made us for Himself, in His image and likeness, able to share in the fullness of His life.

The image that forms in my mind is that of the Lord God putting His signature into every person He brings into being, much as an artist signs a work upon completing it. Each human being is unique yet all are His images.

This signature proclaims, “This one is mine. I made it.”

When we view a great work of art, we are naturally drawn to the artist’s signature. We not only want to know who created it, we want to encounter the artist, the source of the beauty we see.

Whether we call it a point or a spark or a signature, it only makes sense that God would leave His imprint (yet another term for the unnamable) on what He has made.

And in the case of human beings, this imprint is an indelible mark of His presence within.

Merton is correct, I believe, in describing this spark as something we cannot access – in essence, something that we cannot ruin.

Though God has created us with a free will, there are some limitations on that freedom.

We are free to choose our way or God’s way. We are able to choose good or evil, life or death.

However, no matter how much we might damage ourselves and each other by our choices, there are some things we are not able to do with our free will.

We cannot stop God from loving us.

We cannot choose not to be His Creation, His sons and daughters.

We are free to deny these things – to deny that God loves or that He created us or that He exists. We are free to make ourselves ignorant of His way of love, blind to His beauty and deaf to the song He sings to our hearts.

But we are not free to stop Him from being love and beauty and song. We cannot stop Him from being our Father by denying that it is true.

Metaphorically, we cannot erase the signature of the Artist.

We can pile so many sins upon His glory within us that it is barely recognizable. But we cannot remove it – nor can anyone else.

This signature, this imprint of His glory is the splendor of humanity. It is truly like a “diamond blazing”.

Yet we can only know of it by experiencing the poverty, the nothingness of our being apart from Him. It is indeed an absolute poverty that impels us to cry out, “Abba! Father! Save me!”

To know our Artist as “Father”, we must accept in ourselves the poverty of being children – children who are ultimately not in charge of our own lives.

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Awareness that this point, this spark, this imprint has been placed within us is perhaps the most important awareness of our lives.

First, even if I experience myself as confused or I feel detached from God, I have only to look within to find Him, to begin (again) the process of knowing Him.

I do not have to search far to find God or to know that I am His. No matter what the state of my body, my mind or my soul, I will find Him in that tiny spark within me. Every time.

Part of me may want to protest this point – “I don’t know how to find that point. I don’t know what it means to ‘look within’. Where do I look? How do I find Him? This is not nearly so easy as you make it sound.”

To clarify, I did not say that it was easy. I only indicated that we are always free to look within and He will always be there.

If I don’t know how to look within, I can begin by being still. Without a practice of stillness, my focus will likely be trained on things outside of my soul – whether that be the outside world or the clutter of my mind.

In stillness, I discover grace for the asking.

If this is not enough for me to find Him (and it very well may not be), then I must assume that there are passions, sins or other distractions that keep me from seeing Him.

And so I can begin (again) the process of repentance – of patiently but firmly removing all that keeps me from seeing Him.

Certainly none of this is easy. But if I know this spark is within me, I am much less likely to give up the search. “I must keep going, keep going – He is there, I know He is there.”

There is another aspect of this awareness of the spark that is of great value to us.

To consider that God’s signature is within me and within every other person I encounter may change quite substantially my thoughts and feelings and reactions.

If I am tempted to view myself as flawed, worthless or defective, awareness of the spark within requires me to rethink this.

Yes, there may be quite a pile of sins in me. I may frequently give in to the passions. I may feel damaged.

But beneath all of that still lies God signature, proclaiming that I am His creation and always will be.

Nothing I do – and nothing that anyone else can do to me – can ever change that.

And, of course, the flip side of this awareness is that every other person I meet or see or even read about has God’s signature in them as well.

I may not be able to see it – either because I am not willing to look or because they have a lot of sins piled on it – but I cannot deny that it is there.

How does this awareness change things?

It has the power to change them radically.

Someone cuts me off in traffic. Oh – he is God’s own creation.

Another person berates me. As the anger begins to build, I remember – she has God’s signature within her.

A world leader makes outrageous moves that places many innocent people at risk. That’s right – he is one of God’s own children.

This awareness, of course, does not excuse the wrongdoings of others – anymore than it excuses my own.

However, remembering that I am viewing one of God’s personal works of art, I become concerned if its beauty has been neglected or marred.

I do not rage. Rather I pray for the lost and forsaken and strive to cultivate a heart of compassion.

In my nothingness, in the poverty of my being, I search for the tiny points of light in myself and others that they may dispel the darkness of this life and lead us to the great Light of our Creator.

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Abba, Father of all Creation, Holy is Your name. I thank You and I praise You that in Your abundant goodness You have placed Your name within me. May I always rejoice in knowing that I am Your child and not be afraid to depend on You. Help me to grow in all ways, but especially in Your way of love. Open the eyes of my heart that I may behold the light of Your presence in everyone  and everything You have created. May my heart love most especially Your children in whom Your name, Your glory is buried – whether through their own sins or those of the world. Grant me the courage to relentlessly seek Your spark, Your light, in myself and everyone whose path I cross today and every day of my life. Amen. 

God as Trinity

(This is the second post in a series composed for the season of Lent. As noted previously, I am reading “The Orthodox Way”, by Met. Kallistos Ware, and am borrowing his chapter titles for my posts. Although I use his reflections as my starting point, Met. Ware should not be blamed for anything I write here. Indeed, I can only imagine that he would be horrified if he knew… 😉 ) 

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How readily the words of this short prayer form in my mind and roll off my lips. The sign of the Cross, with its words and gestures, was probably one of the first prayers I learned as a child.

Yet the triune nature of God is far from universally accepted much less understood in Judeo-Christian faith history. Jews, Muslims and Jehovah Witnesses, for example, do not see God as three Persons in one God.

Even among those of us who embrace the Trinity, there is much confusion. Most disastrous are the controversies, such as the filioque, that have aroused passions to the point of schism.

I have no interest in discussing these or even giving them much consideration. The mystery of God is beyond me. I shall not try to define Him.

Even setting all of this aside, however, many still find the notion of Trinity confusing and nearly impossible to fathom.

A large part of our problem, I believe, is that we cannot truly comprehend union, as much as we long for it.

In trying to find our way out of this conundrum, we make God far more complicated than is either necessary or helpful. It is not the Trinity Who is so complex as it is the many words we generate is trying to explain what words cannot express.

Union is utter simplicity.

Union is Oneness in being, no divisions, no parts.

But union also requires otherness. Union cannot be described in singular terms any more than love can.

While in psychology we may speak of learning to love oneself, what is meant (or should be meant) is learning to love the God who dwells within us.

When we come to realize the love of God alive within us, it is not the “self” that we love in return – but Another.

Having discovered this divine process within, there is no longer room for doubting, neglecting or despising the self created and so profoundly cherished by God.

It is in and through this process that we are healed.

Self-love approached apart from this process constitutes an unhealthy egocentrism and must be rejected as the work of the enemy.

What we experience in this healing is but a foretaste, a glimpse as it were, of the dynamic love within God.

However, unlike the healing love we cannot live without, the love that unites Father, Son and Spirit is freely chosen.

It is perfect and has been from all eternity. It so defines love that every other love is but a shadow of it, a longing for the completion it represents.

Being three Persons, God loves selflessly, completely, eternally as One Being… Father loving Son loving Spirit.

Yet this union is not a fusion – each Person is distinct and must remain so in order for the love to continue as an ever-living reality.

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I am afraid I have created too many words. I cannot explain Him any more than anyone else… His three-ness, His one-ness…

And yet the Trinity is so incredibly important that I cannot walk away from Its truth as I can with other controversies about God.

In Christianity, God is revealed to us as Trinity, a truth that has far-reaching implications for our faith:

  • To know that God is Person – He is not merely formless energy or “something out there”.
  • To know that God is love, loving within Himself, in perfect, selfless union.
  • To know that God desires our love, our worship, our service, not for His sake (ego on a cosmic scale), but because perfect love invites participation.

Yet just as importantly – or perhaps more importantly – awareness of these truths about the Trinity is fundamental to knowing how we are to live now, as we navigate through this life to join the Life of God.

The Son has instructed us to love one another as He has loved us – and He loves us as He loves the Father and the Spirit.

To live in union with the Trinity, is to follow this Way, to “reproduce on earth the mystery of mutual love that the Trinity lives in heaven”. (The Orthodox Way, Met. Ware).

In so doing, Met. Ware tells us that we create icons of the Trinity in every social unit of our lives. Our families become icons of the Trinity – our churches, our schools, our workplaces…

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I do not know how to be an icon.

But this, of course, is the point. Never was I intended to undertake this alone.

Let us begin the journey toward union.

Let us walk together in His truth.

May we love one another in Him without end.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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