Friday, 31 March 2006

The Human Condition

We have been reflecting on the human condition. What is the human condition? It's nature can be seen in this, that the Incarnate Word of God was willingly crucified out of love for man. Now these are the usual theological words, but what do they mean? First of all, crucifixion is not just death, but a terrible, gruesome death. Why would someone willingly undergo such a gruesome death for someone else? This is not a matter of a sentimental meditation on the Cross: what we have to confront is the human condition that would require such a thing as the Crucifixion, and the love that would be willing to subject itself to such a Crucifixion.

Moreover, we also have to confront the fact that many people who reject Christianity would deny that the Crucifixion was anything other—if it really happened—than a very exaggerated response to human suffering. In the West since the Enlightenment, especially nowadays in liberal areas of the West, there is an attempt to persuade oneself and others of a different interpretation of the human condition. We once saw an article on a fellow who was at the forefront of the movement in Oregon to legalize suicide. The article, published by the alumni office of a local college, treated suicide as a mystical experience, much as Thomas Mann treats the death of Goethe in Death in Venice as a mystical experience. This advocate of suicide, who himself eventually committed suicide, was presented as a hero, as a man who not only had the courage of his convictions but who proceeded to a mystical experience: suicide.

There is much suffering in the human condition. Some post-Enlightenment approaches to the human condition would deny this and pose that life is fun while it lasts, and that after the fun stops, then there is nothing. When the fun stops, we proceed to the mystical experience of suicide. After that, there is silence and a merging of the soul with the vaguely defined pantheistic godhead. The human condition is a matter of a good job, good consumer goods, and fun, fun, fun, according to the particular appetites we have, until we get tired and can no longer have fun. Then we say goodbye to our loved ones and get on with it.

But is this the human condition?

A woman has a son; he is ill. She spends the night with him in the hospital sleeping by his bed on some chairs. A cleaning lady in the hospital tells us that it is only with the help of God, in whom she fervently believes, that she can get through life, because life is difficult. She remarks that God 'roasts us' so that we come to understand what life is all about. Another lady doing menial tasks has a face radiating joy. We ask her where that joy comes from. She replies: 'From the Good God.' We say: 'But we don't have that joy.' She replies: 'You have it, but you don't show it; I show my joy.' These people not only have faith and joy, but they can talk about God in a wise, intelligent fashion. These are the forgotten people, the poor in spirit, the meek who shall inherit the earth.

Buddhism also speaks about the human condition, in the Four Noble Truths. The first truth is that life is suffering. That is how the Buddha perceived the human condition. Buddhism in its higher forms speaks of compassion, and a very important title of the Buddha is 'The Compassionate One'. However, the question arises of the difference between the Orthodox perception of the human condition and the Buddhist perception of the human condition; and the difference between Buddhist compassion and Christian compassion.

We can see in this way the difference in perceptions of the human condition: when Jesus started to preach, he proclaimed: 'Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.' However, in Buddhism's Four Noble Truths, the cause of suffering is ignorance. In Christianity, the fundamental truth is not that life is suffering, but that suffering is ultimately caused by sin. Hence, where Buddhism sees the root cause of the human condition as ignorance, Christianity sees its root cause as sin. In Christianity, it is the Fall of Adam in Paradise, and the personal sin of each person, that defines the human condition.

That explains the difference between Buddhist and Christian prescriptions for the human condition. Buddhism essentially aims for a state of consciousness through meditation that negates the ignorance that is the root cause of the human condition; this is 'enlightenment'. Christianity, however, especially Orthodox Christianity, aims for reconciliation to God; this is both a moral and a contemplative reconciliation to God.

At the level of contemplation, Orthodox Christian contemplation is quite different from Buddhist contemplation: Buddhist contemplation aims for a state of consciousness in which the ego is extinguished; Orthodox contemplation aims for the divinization (theosis) of the person, a return to the state of Adam in Paradise, the fullness of the image of God.

At the level of moral reconciliation to God, which in Orthodoxy is the presupposition of contemplative reconciliation or union with God, what we call divinization (theosis), there enters in the Crucifixion of Christ. Christ became sin so that we might be freed from sin. We cannot ourselves by our own efforts free ourselves from sin, from the human condition. This happens only by the grace of Jesus Christ. This is true even of Christian contemplation: the Christian contemplative awaits the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit, freely given as a gift by Jesus Christ, which illumines his mind. This Christian dynamic is completely different from Buddhism's approach to the root cause of the human condition.

Let us look at Buddhist and at Christian compassion. Although St Paul teaches us that we are to make love our aim, compassion does not play the central role in Christianity that it does in Buddhism. It might be said that God, and his son Jesus Christ, are more important to the Orthodox Christian than the cultivation of compassion. However, as the Orthodox Christian progresses spiritually, he cannot ignore the spiritual dimension of love for others: although the first commandment is to love God with all our heart, the second commandment is to love our neighbour as ourself, and the third commandment is to love our brother as Jesus Christ has loved us.

In Orthodoxy, this love is not sentimental. It is spiritual. Because of that, the cultivation of this love and its ripening are very difficult: the very heart and soul of the Orthodox Christian must open out to the suffering of others; but this can only come about if the Orthodox Christian has suffered much himself. There is no other way. In Buddhism, compassion is the outcome of meditative states which are centred not in the depths of the heart, but in the head. Hence, Buddhist compassion does not have the same central 'from the depths of the soul' character that Christian compassion has. It is the outcome of contemplation in the Buddhist understanding of the term.

From the above considerations we can see that Buddhist and Christian asceticism each have a different character. Buddhist asceticism is to support Buddhist contemplation. Orthodox Christian asceticism is to cleanse the whole soul, the whole person from the passions, and to lead him to the operation of the parts of his soul according to nature, as Adam was in Paradise. This is consummated in Orthodox Christian contemplation.

There is no serious Christian ascetic that would dismiss the Cross of Jesus Christ as irrelevant to his asceticism, to his purification. It is through the Cross of Christ that we are purified in Baptism and subsequently purified in ascesis. It is by the free Grace of him who bore our sins on the Cross and our illnesses by the lashes on his back that we are able to restore to its Archetypal beauty the human condition in ourselves.

Finally, the difference in the Buddhist and Orthodox Christian treatment of the human condition can be seen in the reception of the Holy Spirit by the Orthodox Christian. The Dalai Lama once asked Thomas Merton if, when Christians became monks, they received a spirit. Certainly. They receive an increase of the grace of the Holy Spirit that they received in Christian Baptism. But here is a subtle point: while Buddhists are peaceable persons, the spirit they receive is not the spirit of Jesus Christ. They have no connection to the Cross of Jesus Christ, to the Crucifixion. On the spiritual level, their approach to the human condition is founded on a completely other spirit.

Sunday, 19 March 2006

Sunday of St Gregory Palamas

St Gregory Palamas (1296–1359) is celebrated on the Second Sunday of Lent, in addition to his fixed feast, rarely noted, later in the year. What is the characteristic of St Gregory? His love. We were struck by the Divine Liturgy in his honour today. It brought to mind the famous statement of the emissaries of the Ruler of Kiev in Constantinople: ‘We did not know whether we were in Heaven or on earth.’ It is well to bear in mind that St Paul says that we should earnestly desire the higher charisms but that we should make love our aim. As time goes on, it more and more seems to us that the most important thing that the Christian should cultivate is love: he may or may not become a saint; he may or may not be well-known in this life; but if he begins to love, it is enough.


We have had contact with a liar. This has led us to think a little about liars. What is a liar? First of all, ‘lie’ has an ontological meaning. Jesus says in the Gospel that the Devil ‘was a liar from the beginning and the father of the liar’.

The big liars are of course the demons. The ontological aspect of their being liars is seen in the fact that they do not have subsistence: they cannot retain the same shape or form for any length of time. (This is an Orthodox doctrine, but the poet William Butler Yeats, an experienced occultist who worked with demons, himself confirmed this fact.)

That is why the Elders say that the demons and their works are ‘insubsistent (anhypostatos)’: Whereas Jesus is subsistent, ‘the Way the Truth and the Life’, and ‘the same yesterday, today and forever’, the demons are completely estranged from God and have no share in Jesus’ subsistence beyond their mere continuance in being. To connect oneself to the demons is to connect oneself to what is non-existent, to what is intrinsically unstable, changing, mutable, without substance. It is to connect oneself to a lie.

The liar that we know veils herself with good works. She works in a way which is opposite to that of the Orthodox mosaicist. The Orthodox mosaicist takes little pieces of nondescript stone and painstakingly puts them one by one next to each other to create an icon: a gateway to the Truth. Our friend does the opposite: she takes little pieces of the truth and painstakingly arranges them into a lie: a false image of reality; an image of a false reality.

How can we tell a liar? The Gospel is crystal clear: ‘By their fruits you shall know them.’ We have to look beyond the veil of good works to the fruits. St Silouan extended this criterion somewhat, according to his disciple Fr Sophrony (Sakharov): if a person does not have love for his enemies, watch out.

Our friend the liar is very proud. This is an indication of her condition: the Fathers treat pride as the Devil’s disease, the worst disease of all the diseases that a man might catch.

We are reminded of another woman: Anna Karenina. Tolstoy puts this inscription on his great novel: ‘“Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord, “I will repay.”’ In Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina dies on drugs, a suicide. What will finally happen to our friend, the liar? We do not know. There is a passage in Scripture that says that God the Father will make the enemies of Jesus Christ a footstool for his feet. We wait to see how our friend will end her earthly sojourn.

The Sunday of Orthodoxy

We have been busy for a few days, so let us catch up. George was in Greece for a few days last week, and on his return he told us about an interesting event that happened while he was there: a certain priest-monk was taken out of the tomb 15 years after his burial without having decomposed at all, not even his clothes. This was the priest-monk Vissarion, who was buried in 1991 at the Monastery of Agathon near Lamia, Greece. While in life, this priest-monk had a reputation for great acts of charity—he used to content himself, for example, with wearing a torn habit so that he could save money to put children through school—and for great personal austerity. George told us that the local TV stations were quite interested in this event, and that since they have a custom of putting spokesmen for the two opposing sides on every issue side by side on the screen, along with the news announcer and a clip of the event in question, they had a priest and a spokesman for the Devil (how else to put it?) on the screen simultaneously. George tells us the the spokesman for the Devil has learned the basic method of handling yourself in such situations: start talking very loudly and don’t stop for anyone. The poor priest! He couldn’t, George says, get a word in edgewise. He was too courteous. What interests us, however, is what the spokesman for the Devil had to say. Basically, he said that becoming a saint is a personal, individual matter, with no connection to the Orthodox Church; that such things as the incorrupt relics of priest-monk Vissarion occur in every religion; and that the hierarchs of the Orthodox Church exploit this naturally-occurring sanctity for their own purposes. This got us to thinking about the Orthodox Church.

The Feast of the Sunday of Orthodoxy was instituted in 843 AD on the occasion of the Restoration of Icons, at the end of the Iconoclast controversy. In its most basic form, then, the Sunday of Orthodoxy is the Feast of the Restoration of Icons. That’s why in the litany at the end of the Divine Liturgy everyone carries an icon. Now, the Feast’s meaning as the Restoration of Icons was extended in two directions: backwards in time to a defence of the Orthodox doctrine of the two natures, the human and the divine, of Christ; and forwards to a defence, in the context of the Hesychast controversy of the Fourteenth Century, of the Orthodox doctrine of divinization (theosis).

The connection of the icon to the human nature of Christ can be seen in the defence of icons by St John of Damascus: he very firmly insists that the icon is justified by the Incarnation of Christ. For ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’ Jesus Christ was a true man who could have been photographed, and who can be the subject of an icon. Hence, the extension of the Feast to a general defence of Orthodox Christology—Orthodox doctrine concerning the character of Jesus Christ as true man and true God—is quite understandable. The texts of the service for the Feast make use of the doctrine of the human nature of Christ.

The extension of the Feast after the Fourteenth Century Hesychast controversy in the direction of the Hesychast doctrine of divinization (theosis) is a little less obvious. Here, early Greek Fathers such as St Irenaios of Lyons and St Athanasios the Great of Alexandria make the matter a little clearer: ‘God became man so that man might become a god.’ The Orthodox doctrine of divinization is a doctrine, defended by St Gregory Palamas in the Hesychast controversy, that discusses how that statement of Sts Irenaios and Athanasios is to be understood: the Uncreated Energies of the Godhead permeate the soul in such a way that, by Grace, man is made a god—is divinized (theosis). This is the significance of the Uncreated Light of the Hesychast: the experience of the Uncreated Light in this life is the experience of the Uncreated Energies of God which divinize the Hesychast. This of course does not mean that man’s soul is of the same nature as God. It means that, in the person who is divinized, the image of God that man had in Eden is restored.

Now let us return to priest-monk Vissarion: that he was incorrupt when the tomb was opened (and that a perfume was smelled) is an indication that he had indeed been permeated with the Uncreated Energies of the Godhead in such a way as to have been divinized. For the Uncreated Energies that permeate the soul spill over into the body. Put another way, that the priest-monk Vissarion was incorrupt is a sign on the one hand that the icon of Christ had been restored in his heart before he died and, on the other hand, that he had returned to the condition of Adam before the Fall. In other words, the Orthodox doctrine of divinization (theosis) is a doctrine of the restoration of the image and likeness to God that Adam and Eve had in Paradise before the Fall. The Hesychast controversy of the Fourteenth Century was in part a defence by the Orthodox Church of the possibility of divinization.

The connection to the Feast of the Restoration of Icons is precisely what we have indicated: to be divinized is to be restored in this life to the image of God that Adam and Eve lost in the Fall; it is to become in this life an icon of Jesus Christ.

Now let us return to the doctrine of the Devil, that this happens everywhere, and that the Orthodox hierarchs exploit this. Priest-monk Vissarion had been baptized; he had become a member of the Church. He had become a monk and a priest. He had participated in the other Mysteries of the Church. This means that priest-monk Vissarion had received the Holy Spirit. Recall what the Gospel of John says: ‘For the Holy Spirit had not yet been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.’ It is the crucifixion of Christ, and his Resurrection and Ascension, that open the way for a man to receive the Holy Spirit. Other religions do not have this. It is by Orthodox Baptism that a man receives the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit the forms the Church, that makes disparate ‘unwashed’ individuals into the Body of Christ. Other religions do not have this. If you do not have the Holy Spirit you do not belong to Christ says St Paul. Priest-monk Vissarion died a member of the Body of Christ; his sanctification was not an isolated personal, individual matter in which the Church was irrelevant; his sanctification was accomplished while he was a member of the Church leading an ecclesiastically sound life. And we can be sure that priest-monk Vissarion was on very good and respectful terms with his Bishop. People do not come out of the tomb in such a condition of sanctification if they are not properly inserted into the Church, whose pastors are the bishops. Other religions do not have this: they do not have the possibility of being permeated by the Uncreated Energies of the Godhead, or, put another way, by the Holy Spirit. They do not have the Church of Jesus Christ.

So this is the final meaning of the Sunday of Orthodoxy: the Feast is a defence of the particularly Orthodox doctrines that define the self-identity of the Church of God.

Tuesday, 7 March 2006

The Spiritual Atmosphere of Lent

It is hard to convey the spiritual atmosphere of Lent. This is the atmosphere during the five fasting days per week, when there is no Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. First, what the atmosphere is not: it is not gloomy or depressed and so on. Yet it is not joyful. There is a sort of serenity and sobriety that befits repentance. This is especially evident in the Liturgies of the Presanctified, where there is a sobriety and one might almost say caution in one's spiritual demeanour. There is an emphasis on guarding the truth. Of course, Saturday and Sunday have a more joyous air, as befits days that have celebrations of a liturgy with the sanctification of the Gifts.

Cheesefare Sunday

Cheesefare Sunday might also be called the 'Sunday of Our Expulsion from Paradise'. In Orthros (matins), at the place we read the commemorations of the saints of the day, today we read that we commemorate the expulsion from Paradise of Adam and Eve. If Adam and Eve had not been expelled from Paradise there would be no Lent.

Addendum—The Widow's Mite and the Commandments of the Gospel

In the last post we discussed how what we do to the least of Jesus' brethren is reckoned by Jesus as being done to Jesus himself. But how does Jesus reckon what we have done? When Jesus was in the Treasury of the Temple, he observed a widow putting two small coins into the Treasury. He remarked that she had put in more than the others, who had put in many more coins out of their abundance, because she had put in her whole living. It is the disposition of the person that counts. God doesn't count the coins that you have given to the poor man; he looks at your heart, at what it cost you to give those coins. A small offering from the heart weighs more with God than a big gift with arrogance or pride.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that many will come to him in the Day of the Last Judgement and say, 'Did we not do many great works in your name?' And he will reply, 'I never knew you. Depart from me, workers of iniquity.'

Jesus continues in that place that he who does the will of his Father will enter the Kingdom of the Heavens, and that to do the will of his Father we must keep the commandments of the Gospel. It is he who keeps the commandments of the Gospel and teaches them to others who will be called great in the Kingdom of the Heavens. Here we see that it is not only our disposition but also our keeping of the commandments of the Gospel that enters into how Jesus reckons what we have done to him in doing what we do to the least of his brethren.