What kind of victory

It is rather easy, I think, in this day and age, to discount the resurrection of Jesus.

We know too much. We understand too much. Or at least we think we do.

Over the last week in NE Ohio, we have had some glorious thunderstorms. Thunder crashes, lightning flashes and the earth is deluged with the outpourings of the heavens.

I can imagine our early ancestors, faced with floods and hail and tornadoes, huddling in the back of their caves, only to emerge to offer sacrifice to the gods for whatever offenses brought forth their wrath.

Or possibly, once the storms stopped, offering sacrifices of thanksgiving for the generous rains that would refill their springs and yield abundant nourishment for them and their prey.

But we modern men and women – we understand how weather works. We know what causes thunder and lightning. We can predict our El Ninos and La Ninas. We don’t need a god to save us.

Or, at least, it is easy for us to think that we don’t.

As we accumulate more and more knowledge, we begin to think that all of those “miracles” of old can all be explained by science and psychology. Even if we don’t understand it completely yet, eventually we will.

Healings, it can be argued, are largely psychosomatic. We know about hysterical blindness and paralysis (now referred to as conversion disorders). There probably was nothing organically wrong in the first place. We know about placebo effects and that simply believing we are going to feel better often makes us feel better.

And we know that someone who has been dead for three days doesn’t suddenly become alive again. It simply does not happen – if they were really dead. And, if someone thought to be dead turns out to be alive after all, they most certainly cannot walk through walls or vanish into thin air.

Yet we modern folk know that often people see what they want to see and believe what they want to believe.

It is not so unusual for the bereaved to hallucinate visions of the deceased or feel their “presence”. It is all part of the grieving process and eventually passes.

In much the same way, the disciples probably thought they saw Jesus or felt His presence – but after a while, they didn’t anymore. Naturally, at first, they didn’t want to let go. But eventually they had to – He was gone.

No doubt they meant well in spreading the story of His resurrection. But it is just a story. A story about a good and loving man who had much wisdom to share – but it is naive (and rather silly) to believe that it is anything more.

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Yet there are a puzzling number of modern-day believers who, every year, celebrate this resurrection story and proclaim it as Christ’s “victory”.

What kind of victory do they claim this to be?

In one of their hymns, they sing that Christ “trampled down death by death” (from the Paschal troparion). In one of their Scriptures, they allege that, through Christ, they are given “victory over sin and death” (from 1 Corinthians 15: 57).

But what sense does any of this make? People continue to die every day. And they continue to sin every day.

Death and sin surround us in abundance. They seem, sadly, rather unaffected by the “victory” claimed by those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

Believers may try to cover this embarrassing reality by stating that it is spiritual death that has been overcome, not death of the body. But one doesn’t have to look far to see that many in our world show no signs of life spiritually. Spiritual death does not seem to have disappeared either.

And then there is the claim that it will all be straightened out in the end. Jesus will come again and sort out the good from the bad, assigning both groups of people to what they have merited by their lives.

While an interesting claim, there is no proof whatsoever that this is going to occur. If Jesus was truly victorious, why didn’t He sort it all out during His first coming? Why wait?

So then they tell us we must have faith. But why must we?

Why believe in a victory that appears to be no victory at all?

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It is surprising how alluring these arguments of the modern mind may feel, even to those of us who believe. They fit so comfortably with what we “know” to be true about the world, like a textbook we have read so many times that its facts seem obvious.

If you found yourself feeling uneasy as you read them, you are not alone. I actually made myself nervous.

I had to take a break to pray. I must always remember that I cannot do this alone. It is not just that I cannot write without God’s help; I cannot believe without God’s help.

I am weak. We are all weak.

At the same time, while certainly we should not look for trouble, neither should we be afraid to look the enemy in the face.

For the face we see may be that of a brother or sister who is in the grip of the evil one and does not know it. If we do not know what holds the other captive, how can we hope to set him free?

So, indeed, what kind of victory? What is it that we believe about the resurrection of Christ and why?

First, I think it important to concede that what we believe is, in a sense, “irrational”.

If God and all His Truth could be explained by human reason, He wouldn’t be much of a God at all. It is part of our ancestral sin of pride, the making ourselves out to be gods, that leads us to think that if we cannot explain it, it cannot be true.

While we may well understand it all at some point in the future, it will not be so as a result of our own efforts. His gift, to share in His life, will inevitably bring us to an entirely different level that we cannot yet comprehend. “At present I know partially; then I shall know fully…” (1 Corinthians, 13: 12).

Yet, to concede the “irrationality” of our beliefs is not at all the same as suggesting that we do not use our minds in our faith or that we are content to believe utter nonsense simply because it is appealing.

There is, in fact, very good reason to believe in the historicity of Christ’s resurrection.

The difficulty lies not in a lack of basis for belief but rather in the irrationality itself, i.e. that such an occurrence as “rising from the dead” falls completely outside of our personal human experience and ability to explain.

It would be so much easier to believe if I had seen it with my own eyes.

Short of that, we have the next best thing: ordinary people, no different from ourselves, who did indeed see it with their own eyes – and recorded what they saw.

Not only do these ordinary people tell us in the Scriptures that they were eyewitnesses, but many of them were killed because of their persistence in sharing with others the truth of what they had witnessed.

And in the sharing, they were so utterly convincing in their testimony that those they told were also willing to forfeit their lives rather than renounce what they had learned.

This is not the stuff of mere grief or hallucination.

This is something worth paying attention to…

+++

But can we really believe that Jesus died the same human death that all people die and then rose from the dead?

It is in our Creed. And we claim to believe it.

But just what is it we are saying we believe? What does it mean to “rise from the dead”?

This is, I believe, one of those things that our human minds cannot fully comprehend – and thus, it is a mystery. We should not expect to fully understand it.

Yet we have been told some very important details, details that point to the meaning and reality of Jesus’ resurrection, even if meaning and reality on a higher plane than our intellects can wholly grasp.

Scripture accounts inform us that the rising of Jesus was not merely a spiritual event, but also a physical reality. In other words, He had a Body that people could see and touch. In His risen state, we know that He even asked for food. Was He hungry? We cannot know. But it is very likely that He asked in order to establish to His stunned followers that He was not a ghost or apparition.

It is also revealed to us in Scripture that Jesus’ risen Body was not identical to the human Body in which He had lived 33 years and which had been crucified. It was a new Body, one that was no longer limited by time, space and the laws of nature.

And yet Scripture simultaneously informs us that it was Jesus’ Body. The report that His Body bore the wounds from His crucifixion makes clear that it was His Body and no other.

How can this be? How can the Body of the risen Lord simultaneously be the same Body and a different Body?

This makes no sense in the realm of human logic. Up until this point in human history, the only known type of human body was an earthly body. While its workings were not (and still are not) fully understood, it was known to have certain stable properties.

Spirits or ghosts were (and still are) commonly cited phenomena. However, they have been depicted as spiritual beings not bound by the stable properties of earthly bodies. And it is precisely the absence of these bodies that has defined them as a different sort of being.

Hence, if true, the resurrection of Jesus introduces us to something altogether different from the earthly body: a spiritual or “glorified” body.

In so doing, it reveals to us to a New Life. The old life, the only one known until this time, could not accommodate the notion of the spiritual body that was encountered in the risen Christ.

And this is how St. Luke describes how the apostles were doing shortly after the coming of the Spirit – instructing people about the New Life (or simply “the Life”, in some translations).

They were not teaching the people about a new religion or a new church – but about a completely different Life, sometimes called “the Way”.

The apostles themselves did not have glorified bodies. But their lives in the Spirit were different; clearly they had been transformed. When following Jesus, we are told that they sometimes healed the sick and cast out demons.

But now they did so boldly, publicly and without hesitation – invoking the name of the risen Savior.

Even when repeatedly arrested for doing so, it seems as though these disciples could not stop. And they were not afraid to lose their earthly bodies to death in the process.

They knew there was more.

They knew that the hold death previously had on humanity had been trampled down.

The resurrection of Jesus was absolutely real to them.

Not only did it make them aware that there was a new Life, it revealed to them that this Life was now available to them and to all who would come to accept the Truth through them.

The teaching of this Truth thus became the single most important reality of their lives and they willingly, even gladly, suffered and died to carry out this mission.

And in their sufferings and deaths, they recognized bodily death as a mere transition – the Way to full union with the risen Christ who loved them and drew them into His Love.

Rather than fearing death, as man always has since the Fall, they longed for it. They longed to be with Christ.

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It is now 2000+ years later and Christianity appears to have become another “religion”. Its adherents gather in churches and carry out specified rites and rituals. They celebrate their greatest festivals, Christmas and Easter, much like nonbelievers do.

They have split into numerous factions because they cannot agree with one another. Miracles are claimed occasionally but a certain number of them turn out to be hoaxes. And one does not have search far to find sin and hypocrisy among their membership.

What has happened to the New Life? Did it ever really exist? Or has it simply grown old and died?

If one attempts to answer these questions by watching or reading the news, it might be easy to conclude that there is no “New Life” or that it was a fad that fizzled out. We see people who call themselves Christians involved in all kinds of things that seem too much like the old life. We see a lot of sin.

Yet, we must bear in mind that it has never been claimed that the resurrection of Christ removed the enemy from our world.

Therefore, it should not surprise us to see that sin has infiltrated the ranks of the followers of the Way. The enemy did not discontinue his efforts because of the resurrection. Most likely, he intensified them.

But why did God permit the evil one to remain among us, challenging us – and sometimes overcoming us? And why Jesus didn’t sort out everything immediately after His resurrection?

Thus the question remains: if Christ was and is victorious, how is it that we on earth are still at war?

What kind of victory?

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The answer to these questions lies, I believe, in revising all of our notions about victory.

The victory won by Christ was of a very different sort than what we are used to – completely different from when one team bests another in a contest, or when one country defeats another in battle.

The Lord Jesus triumphed by giving up Himself. He voluntarily allowed Himself to be demeaned and rejected, afflicted with torture and then executed.

Unlike the high priests under Mosaic law, Jesus did not offer an animal as sacrifice for Himself and the people. He had no need to offer sacrifice – for He never sinned, never cut Himself off from the Father, the source of all life.

Instead, He became the sacrifice, a sacrifice that was completely for other, seeking nothing for Himself.

His gift was one of perfect humility, perfect love.

The victories of this world requires that the other be defeated. To be a winner makes the other a loser.

The victory of Christ, in which the victor forfeits life so that the other may receive it, makes no sense to the world. It is not logical. Hence, it seems no victory at all.

But it is, in reality, the greatest victory imaginable.

The first sin, we are told, was one of pride – a pride so immense that these tiny created beings thought that they could make themselves gods. And that they could do so by being disobedient to the One Who created them.

The freedom given to the human creature became an opportunity for the evil one to twist and distort, to lure the human creature from the Way of love to a way of wilfulness and self-glorification.

This story would sound absurd to us – except that we surely recognize it at the core of our own sinfulness, as individuals and as a race.

The sacrifice of Christ completely turns this around. The most humble act, the most loving act conceivable was carried out, not just for one or a few others, but for all others.

So let us consider this: if we were to imagine that Christ’s resurrection had destroyed the devil and forcibly removed all evil from our world, how would this have changed His victory? Or similarly, if upon rising from the dead, Christ had immediately passed final judgment on all?

Well, it would have made it seem a lot more like a worldly victory, wouldn’t it? In other words, it would have made Jesus the winner and the devil, his followers and all enslaved to him the losers.

And this could not be – for the sacrifice of the Christ could not be for His own glorification or for the destruction of another and still be the same act: the most perfect, humble, loving act ever carried out by a human being.

But, having completely given Himself, with no expectation of personal gain, He could be glorified by the Father. He could receive the glorification given to Him – and He did.

Hence, in resurrection, Jesus is seen glorified – in His glorified Body, in the New Life.

He appeared – indeed, He revealed Himself – to those who believed, those whose hearts were ready to receive the truth about the New Life.

He did this not to prove His innocence or even to simply introduce them to the concept of a new life. Rather, He invited them (and us) to share in this Way – the Way of giving up oneself in complete humility and love for the other.

Thus, the Way not only enables believers to break free of the old way of sin and death, but it sends them on a mission to offer love and hope for all who remain under the grip of the evil one.

He does not want to lose a single one of us.

Yet He will never force us into the Way of Love – for it cannot be Love if it is not chosen.

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Understanding better now “what kind of victory” is at the heart of the resurrection, we are still left searching for evidence of the New Life in our world.

We see so much sin and evil around us – and it seems to only grow worse. And, disturbingly, people calling themselves Christians are too often in the middle of it.

Again I ask, has the New Life grown old? Has it died?

Most certainly it has not.

However, to see it, my heart must be humble and my eyes open. Not because the New Life is so hard to find, but because otherwise I will not recognize it for what it is.

Just as the modern mind with its secular perspective concedes that Jesus was a wise and loving person, so it can dismiss those now in the world who, through the Spirit, follow the Way, carrying Christ in their hearts.

If my heart is not humble and my eyes are not open, I may fall into a similar way of thinking.

Someone like Mother Teresa might be viewed as a sort of hero of the times, an extraordinary person. But from this vantage point, the truth gets lost – the truth that she was not the extraordinary one but rather the risen Christ dwelling within her and through her.

To those who love Mother Teresa, this might seem like heresy, but she herself knew this to be true. And so she emptied herself, to allow His humility and love to dwell within her.

And there are many more like her. Some are well-known to us – St. Therese of Lisieux and St. (Padre) Pio in the western Church, and St. Paisios and St. Porphyrios in the eastern Church. Some may never be recognized beyond the handful of people who experienced the love of Christ through them.

But they are here. They exist in every walk of life and in every country of the world.

If I allow my heart to be humbled and my eyes to be opened, I will see them for who they are – not just “good” people, but embodiments of the risen Christ.

I will see them walking among the poor – but also among the rich. I will see them loving quietly and selflessly, not drawing attention to themselves.

I will see them embracing everyone, regardless of what they believe or whether they believe – even those whose lives appear to be entrenched in evil.

And my life will be enriched – no, saved – through my contact with them and the love that emanates from them.

In fact, it has already happened to me. Many, many times over.

Every time it happens, it humbles and empties me more, preparing in my heart a deep and holy dwelling place for the risen Christ.

I become nothing and His love becomes all.

With His Spirit guiding and sustaining me, I follow the Way.

Stumbling, falling, humbled, emptied, I am almost lost – again.

And He sends yet another to pull me up that I might begin again.

I follow the Way.

May it be so – for all of us.

Amen.

 

while it is still April

 

while it is still April

i will sing to you

of color and flight

and everything green

and growing.

               +

i will sing

of crashing clouds

that thunder and splash

raining life upon

earth’s knowing.

               +

while it is still April

i will sing of sun

and opening buds

through which the wind

comes blowing.

               +

and in the end,

i will sing of hope

and love undying

which from His tomb

are flowing.

           – – –

April is National Poetry Month and, interestingly, while I was dreaming up this post, its title became the prompt for the poem. I welcome posts of any original poems you might wish to share in the comments, “while it is still April”.

Strange bedfellows

To some, mixing Christianity and psychology may seem odd, even dangerous.

Many Christians are wary of psychologists – and with some reason. Sadly, many psychologists are skeptical about God and matters of faith.

In my life, the two blend so seamlessly that I cannot help but be both – a Christian and a psychologist. And I know I am not alone. Whether openly or in secret, there are many in the healing professions who are also devout believers.

Recently, in the comments, someone raised good questions about emotions and faith. I was intrigued. I spend much of my day working with other people’s emotions (not to mention my own) and pray that I do so with God’s Spirit guiding me.

Our emotions can be so powerful. And anything that is powerful has much potential for both good and evil in our lives.

And so the question might be raised: how do we as Christians understand and manage our emotions?

Are we supposed to control and subdue them? Embrace them and sit with them? Or perhaps disown them altogether as “deadly sins” (aka “passions”)?

Wow. Complicated questions.

But then again, emotions are complicated things.

As I ponder these questions and listen within, several points of awareness immediately jump up and take center stage.

One is that we cannot trust our emotions.

Another is that we cannot live without them.

And yet a third awareness is that to disown our emotions is to disown a part of ourselves and therefore is inherently unhealthy, spiritually and psychologically.

Hmm…this should make for an interesting discussion.

Let’s begin with defining what emotions are. I confess that before sitting down to write tonight, I asked the Google lady to define “emotion” for me. Being a psychologist, it seems like I ought to have the words to describe these mysterious phenomena, but I like the way she gives me straight answers – so unemotional is she in her computerized voice.

Here’s what she said: “Emotion: a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.”

It is also noteworthy that a slight scroll down the screen revealed a bit more from Dictionary.com in which emotions were differentiated from “cognitive and volitional states”.

While these definitions seem rather dry and clinical, I think they can be quite helpful to us. Let’s begin…

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Before all else, I think it important to say that our emotions are a gift from God.

This does not mean, of course, that they cannot be twisted and distorted and made to serve the evil one instead of God. All of God’s gifts can be perverted in some fashion, especially those most closely associated with human freedom.

Yet I think it is essential to any spiritual discussion of emotions to acknowledge that they are not inherently “bad”. Emotions cannot be right or wrong, good or bad, in and of themselves.

Even anger? Yes. Even anger.

I grew up – and I’m sure I’m not alone – seriously misunderstanding this very point. As I have written elsewhere, as a child preparing for confession, I once read the list of the 7 deadly sins and concluded that it was sinful for me to feel angry. Also for me to feel good about myself for any positive achievements as that would be pride.

What a mess that caused.

But I cannot really complain too much about this mess because, through it, God led me to become a psychologist. (It took a lot of therapy to work out a neurosis of that magnitude – and in the process, I discovered the beauty of this healing practice.)

OK, so back to emotions. A gift from God…

If we return to the Google Lady’s definition of emotions as an “instinctive state of mind” we may understand these notions a bit more clearly.

Emotions are indeed instinctive. Being instinctive, they are not volitional. We don’t choose them. They happen.

This may not sit well with us initially – especially with our most beloved feelings, like that “whoosh” of joy that we feel when we see the morning sun glistening on dew-drenched blossoms.

But it also may not sit well with us regarding the least beloved feelings of those around us, such as the snapping anger of a friend or spouse. You mean they can’t help it?

Yet if we stop to consider it, how many of us begin our day by thinking, “I’d like to get angry today. I think I’ll do it this afternoon when my coworker starts cracking his knuckles while I’m trying to concentrate”? Or by thinking, “I really must get sad tonight over my grandmother’s death. I haven’t done it in a while”?

It is because of this instinctive quality that we must not consider emotions as good or bad, right or wrong. We are not culpable for what is involuntary.

Surprisingly, it is in their instinctiveness that we discover that these emotions of ours are a gift from God. Indeed, “we cannot live without them” (point two, above).

On a purely biological basis, two very common emotions, anger and fear, are our protectors when we feel threatened or endangered. (Yup, good old “fight or flight” comes to our rescue.) We must have these to survive.

The two other emotions considered “basic” to humans are happiness and sadness. These too surely have some survival value. Our expression of these emotions communicates to others what we ought to approach or avoid.

And, lest this come across as too scientific or evolutionary, all four of these basic emotions are also part of what adds depth and color to our lives. They are a core part of our relatedness to one another – which, in Christianity, we call love.

Unperverted, the emotions instinctively communicate among us who and what we need, trust and value. In their many and varied forms, they mold us into community – a challenging but vital part of who we are.

And there are far more emotions than just the basic four. Could we live without gratitude, sympathy or attraction? Or even without frustration, regret or worry?

I do not think so. At least, I, for one, would not want to try. I believe that these emotions, in their pure and undistorted forms, are gifts that not only support our survival but deeply enrich our lives.

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Having thus labeled emotions as gift, how then can I simultaneously say that they cannot be trusted? (see point one above) Why would God give us such a gift?

The dilemma, however, lies not in God’s gift of emotion but, strangely, in another one of His gifts: our freedom.

Yes, our freedom. It is what makes our emotions different from those of the lower animals. The animals have only the instinctive part – so the gift for them is always pure and undistorted.

But we humans…well, we have this freedom issue that opens the door for our gift of emotion to become perverted, often without our recognizing it.

[Side note: This, of course, still leaves us with the question as to why God would give us such a gift as freedom. My only conclusion after many years of pondering is that freedom is essential to love. And, while our freedom can result in some horrible messes, the supremacy of love redeems them all.]

The perversion of our emotions is a central aspect of our “ancestral sin”, the disease that has been passed down from generation to generation since the first sin. And, because we often are naturally blind to this perversion, we tend to think of our instinctive emotional reactions as normal and natural.

Unless, of course, we learn otherwise.

But, before going there, let’s consider an example of these distorted emotions that we cannot trust.

OK, pride, one of those ones I misunderstood a lot in my childhood. And my adulthood.

Suppose I get really good grades on my report card and I am pleased. I worked hard and feel good about the positive result. Anything wrong with that “pride”?

No, I don’t think so. This emotion of pride is a relatively undistorted and instinctive reaction to having my effort yield a successful result. It even has a positive value because the pleasant feeling reinforces effort, making me more likely to continue applying myself to my studies.

However, suppose something else creeps into my child’s mind. Suppose I think, “I’m smarter and better than my brother because I got better grades than he did.” And suppose I let him know it, directly or indirectly.

I do not think it is too hard to see in this scenario that my instinctive and innocent emotion has been corrupted.

First, I am attributing all of the good result to myself, ignoring the fact that whatever academic abilities I might have were given to me by God. I didn’t create the ability in myself. Second, I have departed from the way of Love by using my accomplishment to diminish another. I cannot simply be pleased; my victory has to be someone else’s defeat.

Although having learned about sin, I am unable to recognize (in this hypothetical scenario) that a disease has been passed down to me and has infiltrated my emotions. Being raised in a culture where competition is paramount (part of the disease), my emotional reaction seems as normal as rooting for the home team.

It all transpires so automatically that I do not even question it.

I don’t see the enemy at work because it has not even occurred to me to look for him.

And this is why we cannot trust our emotions.

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There are many ways in which we may discover our emotions to be untrustworthy. In fact, so many ways that to do a comprehensive review would most likely feel very disturbing to us.

Some of our emotions we find quite pleasant. We can trust our feelings of joy, can’t we? Certainly there can be nothing distorted about them.

Well, actually there can be – at least some of the time anyway.

Even my deepest spiritual joy is suspect. Not because of the joy itself but because of how readily contaminants can invade even this sacred experience.

Perhaps I imagine myself being admired for my devotion. Perhaps my joy makes me feel like I am above “those other people” who are not on such intimate terms with God.

The list could continue on – but I think the point is made.

Ironically, we cannot even trust our emotions to guide us about whether we growing spiritually or not. Feeling bereft of God’s presence and consolation may be an indicator that God is actually at work deep within us, despite how “bad” it feels.

God certainly gives us some strange gifts. And leaves us so vulnerable to attack.

All for the sake of love, it seems.

+++

If they are so treacherous, so infiltrated by the enemy, should I not just banish my emotions altogether? Better to pluck out my eye than… (See Mark 9: 47.)

And did not the Lord Jesus forbid anger, one of our basic but most troublesome emotions? (See Matthew 5: 22).

I do not think the first Scripture passage is meant to be taken literally. Jesus doesn’t want us to maim ourselves. Since all have sinned, a literal interpretation would leave everyone wandering about half-blind and missing one or both hands.

Further, the Gospels tell us that when Jesus approached a sinner, He simply said, “Your sins are forgiven.” (He did not offer to help saw off their hands.) The message, I believe, is that He doesn’t want us to value anything more than we value our souls.

Hence, if we are not meant to maim our bodies, neither are we meant to maim our minds. (Recall how neurotic I became when I tried to rid myself of all anger and good feelings about myself? A psychological maiming that resulted from not allowing myself to feel what I felt.)

And what about Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel: “whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment”? Doesn’t this mean we shouldn’t feel angry?

I think we can only assume that Jesus was referring to perverted emotions, since He was explaining this in the context of murder. He wanted us to understand that murder starts with the perverted emotion of anger.

Is there any other sort of anger than this distorted kind? Actually, yes. When Jesus cleansed the Temple of the money-changers, He displayed anger – strong anger. So what is the difference? And why didn’t He make the distinction, if this is what He meant?

Jesus’ anger was pure, i.e. it wasn’t bound up in ego and wasn’t a departure from the way of Love. In fact, He was angry because of Love – love for the Father and love for those who, while pretending to be observant of the Law, were actually disparaging it.

We sinners, in our perverted anger, too often like to justify ourselves by noting that “Jesus got angry too!” We can’t see the difference because we are blind to how our emotions have been twisted. Hence, we wouldn’t have gotten it, had Jesus attempted to explain that our anger, not His, would be “liable to judgment”.

In sum, banishing our emotions, despite the fact that we cannot trust them, is not the solution. We won’t succeed and, by disowning a necessary and vital part of ourselves, we may well end up damaging ourselves psychologically.

+++

Maybe I can just control my emotions. Or at least the bad ones. Oh…that’s right. There aren’t supposed to be any “bad” ones.

So where do I turn? Does Christianity hold any answers for me? Or do I turn to psychology?

Strange bedfellows though they may be, Christianity and psychology, both rightly understood, can never be at odds with one another.

The problem in today’s world, however, is that we seldom (if ever) understand either one of them rightly.

And so I’m going to be the exception? No, I do not understand them rightly either. But I pray before I write, proceeding with trust that the Holy Spirit will enable me to write something worthy of Him.

Beginning with the Christian perspective, the teaching that first comes to mind is this:

“Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5: 8)

Now that we know that our emotions are a gift from God but are often twisted by the enemy, we must be watchful. Rather than automatically trusting (or rejecting) what we feel, we stop and take notice of our emotions.

We accept the emotions as ours – but we are cautious.

We observe them with some neutrality that we might discern whether they have been tampered with. This is not unlike how a person of importance in wartime might examine their mail carefully before opening it.

While examining our emotions in this manner might seem obsessive or burdensome, we must remember that we are indeed at war, though on a spiritual battlefield unseen by human eyes.

As we become more practiced at this process of observing and discerning, it may come more automatically. However, though some may pass inspection quickly, other emotions we may need to sit with for some time before we see the truth hidden within.

Does this spiritual process have any parallels in the world of psychology? Indeed it does, though naturally the vocabulary of secular practice is quite different.

One example of this parallel might be found in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), one of the most widely researched and commonly used treatment approaches in psychology. In CBT, we acknowledge the link between distortions in thinking and emotional distress. We learn to be on the watch for these distortions so as to intercept and correct them.

Another example might be how, in mindfulness treatment approaches, we learn present-moment awareness, observing our emotions from the quiet of nonjudgment. In so doing, we learn to not drown in our emotions – but also not to exile them. We notice and accept them, while cultivating compassion for self and others.

Yes, the vocabularies are different but, theoretical underpinnings aside, we find some common truths in the Christian and psychological perspectives: that emotions are not trustworthy; that despite this, emotions are important and not to be banished; that emotions are frequently subject to distortion which can be quite problematic; and, finally, that we need to be on the watch for these distortions and the trouble they cause.

In other words, we simply cannot let our emotions run amok or they may destroy us from the inside out.

+++

Of course all of this simply begs the question.

Understanding our emotions in this rudimentary fashion, what then are we as Christians to do with them?

Certainly, being sober and vigilant is essential. But it truly could become obsessive to try to intercept and examine each and every emotion experienced on a daily basis.

This is especially true because we have learned that we cannot even classify the emotions by content to simplify the task. There is no rule of thumb that allows us to say that anger is suspicious but joy is not.

What we must do, I believe, is acknowledge that the task before us is impossible.

I suppose psychology would call this a “paradoxical intervention”. However we are embarking on a far deeper course here.

Facing the impossible, as Christians, we turn to God – for nothing is impossible or inscrutable for Him.

Always, we pray. But especially we pray when encountering those emotions that we cannot manage on our own – the ones that confuse or overwhelm us when we try to discern whether they have been contaminated.

We pray to Christ – for He shared our emotions during His time among us and He understands. We ask Him daily to purify our hearts, our minds, our emotions.

We ourselves cannot defeat the evil one. But He already has.

We pray also to His Holy Mother and to all the saints, for they too know the struggle of being human. They are our helpers and protectors.

As we continue our lives of prayer, we cultivate the virtues. Knowing both the impossibility and the necessity of managing our emotions, we learn humility. As we grow in humility, we come to see more clearly how ego is behind so many of our troublesome emotions.

And so we pray to our Savior to help us empty ourselves as He emptied Himself.

As we become empty of self, we understand more and more how to cultivate the virtues of compassion, understanding and patience.

We begin to truly comprehend the disease that has afflicted us. We come to understand that those who provoke our most difficult emotions are similarly afflicted.

In our prayer, we ask the Lord to wash us in His mercy. And, as our compassion grows, we begin to ask Him to wash all others in His mercy as well.

Each time He washes us in His mercy, we learn a bit more about what we need to cleansed of. Indeed, in our prayers of gratitude, we begin to ask Him to help us see more clearly what in our thoughts, feelings and desires need purifying.

And He shows us.

Little by little, we learn the virtue of temperance, discovering that, as we grow in Him, many of our hungers and desires become less consuming. He Himself fills our deepest hunger, such that our other hungers becoming barely noticeable by comparison. Yet in His love for us, He never forbids us the sweet simplicity of His created gifts to address them.

What I have written here is not, of course, the end of the process, but merely the beginning.

Living a life in Christ is a continual unfolding that brings us more and more deeply into the peace that only He can give.

And in that peace, by His grace, we find our emotions becoming increasing pure. Yet, it is not merely the purity that the animals possess. It is the purity of Love.

+++

Can psychology offer anything that parallels this?

Certainly not – at least not in its textbooks and research articles.

Yet this does not mean that we need dismiss it any more than we would dismiss medical help when we are ill.

God can and does heal our bodies and our minds.

Yet He also allows us suffering that we might be more closely united to Christ on the Cross.

But we are not to be united to Him by ourselves. He brings us into His Body with its many members that we might also be in union with one another.

This unity of the Body is not static – no, it is dynamic and fully alive. Every member has been given its own unique gifts to nourish and heal others in the Body, so that each is ever giving and receiving in an eternity of loving exchange.

A wise and holy patient of mine (who has since gone to God) helped me understand this in very practical terms.

In her Protestant denomination, members actively renounced psychology, something that saddened her greatly. She had had a very traumatic life and she knew God brought us together to help her heal. She saw many depressed and traumatized souls coming to her church every week but they would not consider doing what she so bravely did.

One time when we were discussing this, she shared with me this simple lesson: whether we are going to a medical doctor, a dentist or a psychologist, what is most important is that we find one who is “in the Body”.

She had seen me previously and was not ready. Truthfully, I was not ready yet either at our first encounter. Time brought her searching again and she saw a couple of other therapists briefly. She related how they did not understand her – and stated that she could not understand a word they said!

They simply did not speak the same language. The other therapists were kind and well-intentioned people but they were not “in the Body”.

When she and I resumed therapy after a hiatus of several years, she was ready. And I began to understand that the movement I been experiencing in my soul prior to her arrival was God preparing me.

And, as always happens in the Body, the gifts God gave me brought her healing and the gifts God gave her strengthened me in faith.

“Psychology” was a vehicle that was integral to the process, but never apart from the loving hand of God.

+++

Having prayed for and written these words over a period of several days, I am now spent, like a woman who has given birth after a long and harrowing labor.

Harrowing – for I see how very weak I am. I am but a child wandering about on a battlefield who, by the grace of God, still stands after the shots have been fired.

Can I even trust the words I have written?

Certainly not. Nor can I trust any of the emotions I feel as I read them over one last time.

I can only trust in God. I give Him myself.

May He do with me – and these words – whatever He wills.

+++

May God bless us and keep us. May He let His face shine upon us. May He be gracious to us and grant us His peace.

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

Back to the books

Just a brief note, dear readers.

I have decided to blog the book I mentioned earlier, Father Arseny, 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father, as well as the second volume, Father Arseny: A Cloud of Witnesses.

(By “blogging the book”, I mean that I have created a blog site where I will post a series of reflections and invite others to do so as well.)

The site address for this new blog is: https://heretopray2.wordpress.com/ and the first post has been posted.

I realize that many of my Orthodox readers may have already read these books. Please feel free to break out the old volumes and reread any parts that especially moved you. Since the books include many memoirs, these can be reflected upon again and again without rereading the entire book. (Not that there is anything wrong with rereading the entire book!)

I will not be blogging in a chapter-by-chapter fashion as I did with our first book. At least as far as I know. Never know how the Spirit will lead me. 🙂

Although I have finished posting on the first book blog, any who wish to read and comment on Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way, by Matthew the Poor (Fr. Matta El-Meskeen), that blog remains available at https://heretopray.wordpress.com/. I will receive notice of any comments posted there and will gladly respond to them.

All of the books mentioned in this post are extraordinary books that I believe will help us grow together spiritually. If this seems like a good time for you to read, please join me…

The Great Divide

I did not know until a few years ago that I had been living in schism all my life. No one told me.

You may think that I am joking but I am not. It is rather hard to believe, given that I am 61 years old and not generally an ignorant person.

I grew up in a largely Roman Catholic world and, as a child, was taught that the Catholic Church was the One True Faith. While I came to gradually learn a bit about other religions, Christian and otherwise, I did not know that there was another Church that laid hold to this same claim.

There was the girl down the alley that I sometimes played with when we lived in Minneapolis. I knew that she was Lutheran. I also knew that I wasn’t to ever attend any of her church services because I might unwittingly learn some false teachings.

I had no idea what those false teachings were – but I was not about to risk finding out. I felt a bit bad for my friend, that she was under the influence of this unknown error, but she and her family seemed to be nice enough people. And I was raised to be accepting of diversity, even though we didn’t have a buzzword for it back then.

When I began high school (Catholic, of course), our insular way of life was challenged by change. Within the Church, Vatican II had  launched its modifications to our familiar rituals and practices. It was an exciting time for me. Words that I had learned to rattle off in Latin now had meaning for me. And I liked the meaning.

My school encouraged us to question and examine our faith – to really make it our own. As part of a special interim time in the school year, I joined an instructor and a few other students in a study of Judaism. It was fascinating to attend a Bat Mitzvah and learn what it meant to keep Kosher.

In the outside world, change was also rampant. I was a bit oblivious during those early years of high school but, having an older brother, I soon learned about things like the Vietnam War. In 1973, the legalization of abortion cut through me like a knife. High school religion classes began to include the discussion of social and political issues in the context of our faith.

However, in one high school religion class, we learned about other religions. I do not recall just which ones – but I do remember the Mormons. They scared me because, on the surface, I thought it just might be true. I felt strongly about the plight of Native Americans and it seemed to me quite plausible that Christ might have visited these noble people after His Resurrection.

If this really did happen, would it mean that I had to change my religion? I did not like the idea of leaving the familiar – but the truth was important to me. However, further reading revealed some beliefs that did not ring true to the Gospel I knew. Hence, I was not put to the test and could, in good conscience, remain Catholic.

There was no discussion in this class of the Orthodox Church – at least that I can recall. In fact, I am embarrassed to admit that I probably didn’t even know there was such a faith. I vaguely recall asking my mother why the cross on a particular church looked different from ours when we drove past it. Whatever response she gave must have satisfied my curiosity. I had no reason to think about it further.

While my relative ignorance may seem appalling, it must be noted that, in those days, we did not have the Internet. Computers were huge machines that took up entire rooms and most of us had little or no access to one. Hence, our interests were piqued only by those things we saw in our daily lives or heard about on the television or radio.

And even if my interest was piqued on a topic, my information sources were limited to the Webster’s dictionary and the Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia my mother had purchased, one volume at a time, from the local grocery.

There was, of course, the library. But that required being driven by a parent and such excursions were typically reserved for times when homework assignments required more than what the Funk & Wagnalls could offer. The library had the Encyclopedia Britannica!

Naturally, one would expect that I would have learned more when I went away to college, especially given that theology classes were required at my Catholic institution. But, alas, no courses on Church history to cue me in on the “other Church” and the existence of the schism.

I would not want my Orthodox friends to be offended by my ignorance of their existence and our sad division. Truth be told, I never really understood the Reformation either. Despite my deep interest in Christianity, all of the details of history, religious or secular, well…kind of bored me. To this day, I’m not sure which side of the “faith vs. works” controversy I am supposed to be on. It has always seemed obvious to me that we need both, so why all the fuss?

In 1977, I moved to Cleveland to be part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, a spiritual journey into living simply in community, with a focus on social justice and service.

And it was in 1977 that I had my first notable contact with Orthodoxy.

My volunteer job was working with ex-offenders in a program that was founded by Lutherans and administered by an Interfaith (largely Protestant) organization. My spiritual horizons were expanding and I learned a profound respect for the faithful lives of those who worshiped in ways other than my own.

But the Orthodox were not, of course, part of this.

However, just down the street from my office in the inner city, an Orthodox priest was founding a monastery which soon became a shelter for homeless men. I was intrigued by this because I had never heard of a monastery performing such a service – but we were very grateful for it. Extra food was always brought to their kitchen as they fed many of the poor of the neighborhood as well as their homeless guests.

I did not see many monks in this monastery but I did not really expect to. Their notices in local publications always included an invitation to attend Divine Liturgy. I considered going, having shed the old dictum about being led astray, but I was a bit shy. I didn’t know what to expect and was reluctant to just appear at the door for liturgy. Where amidst the throngs of homeless men would this liturgy take place?

However, having had a passing and pleasant acquaintance with the founder, Fr. Gregory Reynolds, I went to St. George’s Orthodox Church to pay my respects when he reposed. I did not attend the services, assuming that such were for those who shared his faith and life more intimately than me.

When, in 1999, I moved into my house in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland, I discovered a wealth of churches. There were (and still are) three Orthodox Churches within walking distance of my house and at least three Roman Catholic Churches (not to mention the Ukrainian Catholic and Byzantine Catholic Churches). We were also graced with the United Church of Christ, an Evangelical Lutheran Church and some Hispanic Pentecostal churches and storefronts.

We all seemed to live peaceably together in this small, once highly ethnic enclave to the south of downtown. Still, no one informed me that I was in schism. And yet, realistically, how and when could this have been brought to my attention?

+++

I have told the story elsewhere of how, in July of 2012, God directed me to Fr. Stephen’s blog Glory to God for All Things.

In short, following a deep meditation while having an MRI of my brain, I felt compelled to search the Internet for an understanding of some words that had come to me. It had to do with God singing. I had never read before that God or even Jesus sang – yet this had entered my prayerful meditation while in the tube.

When Google did not immediately come up with anything significant, I recalled Aslan singing in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. So I entered “Aslan singing” into my search engine. And I found myself reading a text that didn’t seem to have much to do with God singing – but it caught my attention nonetheless.

“Wow, I really agree with this!” I thought to myself. “What is this website?” That initial reading wasn’t so much imparting any new information to me about Christianity (that would come later), but it was just so well explained that I had to continue reading.

It took a little while for me to get a grasp on the discussion, but not terribly long. The Internet was at my fingertips and I could learn the basic facts I needed. I had also had a patient some years before who had converted to Orthodoxy, debunking the old assumption that Orthodoxy was probably “just an ethnic thing”.

As I read more and more at Fr. Stephen’s, I found myself joining in the community of commenters and feeling quite at home. Most of the time. Every now and then someone made a comment that suggested some rather strong negative feelings about Catholicism. Fr. Stephen himself seemed to me to be “angry” when discussing our separation.

I even wrote a comment to him once, asking forgiveness for whatever my Church had done to his Church. I didn’t get it. Yet when his posts turned too historical for my poor history-challenged mind, I simply scanned them and waited for another.

While things that happened so many years ago might interest some, they didn’t appeal to me. This side says this, the other side says that. There is no unbiased account of history – how can I make sense of it?

We all believe in the Gospel, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the source of our salvation. We all know the real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We honor His Virgin Mother and celebrate the communion of saints. As for “the filioque”, frankly, I had never heard of it.

When I learned what it meant, I was again scratching my head. I could not imagine that any of us know or understand the inner workings of the Holy Trinity. What is important is that we believe that there is a Holy Trinity. And Catholics and Orthodox alike hold this fundamental belief.

Now I understood that this wasn’t the only trouble that led to this schism-thing. I’m sure more historical research would have led me to more facts. But I was searching with my heart, not my mind. Why was I separated from my brothers and sisters in Christ?

+++

Fast-forwarding into the present stage of my faith journey, it seems to me that the heart of the trouble lies in our sinfulness. How can it not? God gave us one Church and we broke it in two.

Of course, it is very typical of us human beings to point to the other guy and say, “He’s the one who did it, not me!” or “I wouldn’t have had to do this if she hadn’t done that!”

And so, whether it be the schism or the Reformation (about which I remain in historically ignorance to this day), our natural tendency is to view things in black-and-white terms. It becomes as much about blame in these historical conflicts as it does in marital conflicts.

Which, I believe, reflects our lack of repentance.

Whenever people interact, a system is created – a system that is something different from just the two or more individuals (or nations or church bodies) involved. Even when one party commits an egregious wrong, the response of the other party becomes an important part of the dynamic. More actions and reactions come forth that would not have occurred were it not for the interaction. And on it goes, one reaction provoking another which provokes another…

In other words, none of us are innocent. We have all inherited sin and we all partake, feeding into the vicious cycle of destruction.

Were it not for Christ, I fear that we would never find our way out of this mess. We would be bereft of the glorious union with Him and each other for which we were made. I can imagine no greater tragedy.

+++

Now that I have been told about the schism, certainly I can intellectually grasp the concept. It goes something like this:

There was a rupture in the Church many centuries ago, the history of which is there to be studied by those who wish to study it. As a result of the rupture, separate human ecclesiastical institutions developed, one commonly called “Catholic” and the other “Orthodox”. The Orthodox and the Catholic believe a few things differently. On a practical level, the manner in which these groups worship differs significantly on many details. I say “details” not to minimize their importance to the people who practice them but to distinguish them from the heart of the liturgy: the Word and the Eucharist. Despite their many common beliefs, they remain apart, not sharing the Sacraments with each other, and hence they are not “in communion” with one another. Both consider themselves directly descended from the apostles and thus, “the Church”, with the other ecclesiastical institution being regarded as the one who left the Tradition.

And oversimplified explanation, no doubt, but I’m not going to pretend to explain more than I understand. Nor am I claiming that my understanding is completely accurate.

Having said all of this about the schism, however, I must confess that I still don’t really see it.

I see one Church, the living, mystical Body of Christ on earth. You, my faithful Orthodox readers, I see you in the Body. You, my faithful Catholic readers, I see you in the Body too. And any other readers, genuinely seeking God, longing to know Christ, I see you in the Body too – or at least on your way to finding your home there.

We are one Church, one Body of Christ. In Him, we are being made perfect so as to be brought into perfect union with Him and each other.

Yet, you might ask, how can I say this when the Orthodox and Catholics are not in communion with one another?

My human mind and my earthly eyes can certainly see the rupture. But the eyes of my heart see the Oneness – and I trust the eyes of my heart more than their worldly counterparts.

It is true – the eyes of my heart cannot see it perfectly. I am not perfectly united to Christ. But I see it…if only “as in a mirror”.

Allow me to explain.

What do we imagine that Christ Himself sees? As the Head, when He looks upon His Body, does He see the broken or the whole?

Because we have broken what He gave us, is He then compelled to also see it as broken? For all eternity?

I cannot imagine that He is compelled to do anything, much less see through the eyes of sinful humanity. In His eternal Being, He sees all things as they are in the fullness of timeless Truth. How could we imagine that He would see our sinfulness, the lies of the evil one, rather than Truth?

This is not to say that He does not know that the lies and sins and evil are all still at work in our world. But He, in His eternity, sees the antidote. For He Himself is the antidote.

His Body, once broken and raised, cannot be broken again.

Just as in the Gospel the Lord Jesus looked upon the man with a withered hand and made him whole, so He looks upon our brokenness and we are made whole. He looked upon the blind, the lame and the deaf; if they believed, they too were made whole.

To be healed, they needed only a flicker of faith, not a lengthy creed. And those who were possessed did not even need to express belief. He saw that they were caught in an impossible trap and He set them free.

Yet even greater than this is what He has done for us. Before surrendering Himself to death, He gave us His Body and His Blood – that we might know that He chose to sacrifice Himself out of love.

Then, taking into Himself all of our weakness, our sin, our strife, He allowed His Body to be beaten, broken, spat upon.

Though He had done nothing to merit death, He entered death in utter humility, sacrificing everything. Death could not hold Him captive as it did us – for the prince of death could not endure His selfless love.

Triumphant in battle, He was raised up on the third day. Not into this life or into His old Body but into the New Life and the new Body. The Body which we are, the Church, through the outpouring of the Spirit upon us.

His Body, once broken and raised, cannot be broken again.

Human institutions we can pervert, divide or even destroy with our sins. But we cannot break the Body – we cannot divide it.

We are One Body.

We are the Church.

+++

(Please note that these ramblings are simply my ramblings and do not represent the teachings of the Catholic Church. I do not know enough to undertake a task of that magnitude. May God forgive me in my sinful folly.)

o holy Love

+

divine love is humble

pouring itself out completely

as it forgives, restores, heals.

it has no end,

emptying itself

yet never running dry.

it is personal, intimate,

drenching the body, the mind, the soul

with all they ever longed for

but knew not how to desire.

divine love caresses, enlightens, fulfills,

drawing the other into communion

until there is no difference

between Lover and beloved –

and the beloved too is humble,

pouring itself out completely

as it forgives, restores, heals.

it has no end,

emptying itself,

yet never running dry.

o holy Divinity, God, Creator of all –

my Beloved, my hope, my joy!

there is no end – only beginning,

as You create and love and create anew,

o holy Love, my love, My Love.

*

o holy Love, can i allow myself to receive You?

(refrain repeats and repeats)

*

hush…just receive…

just receive…

receive…