Wednesday, 13 December 2006

Orthodox Monasticism 15D — Our Response Part 1

In Orthodox Monasticism 15C, we posted the reply of ‘our young Romanian-American reader’ to our posts on what he should be reading to improve his knowledge of Orthodoxy and Orthodox monasticism. We would now like to respond to his reply.

Again, this is a rather long response and because of the limitations of Blogger we will have to post this response in parts. But the parts comprise a whole.

There are a number of issues that our reader has raised, and we have wondered how to respond in an integrated fashion, and, moreover, in such a way that we would naturally lead in to our next post, on the passions and dispassion in the Ladder of St John of Sinai. Actually, the easiest part is to segue into St John of Sinai: the issues being raised are relevant to what we want to discuss in that post. The difficult part is to handle the issues being raised in our reader’s reply in such a way as to cover them all in a global way.

We would like to repeat that we know nothing more about our reader than what we have posted and to point out that we are writing not only for him but with an eye on our broader readership. In so doing, we may be addressing issues that are irrelevant to him. We hope he will forgive us.

The main issues are these: our reader has discovered in late adolescence, a senior in a ‘rather prestigious boarding school’ in the United States that there is an emptiness in his life where God should be. Moreover, that emptiness is not being filled with the study of comparative literature, and all the other courses that he is doing, evidently for a baccalaureat. So he wants to think about it while he prepares to enter college, which presumably also will be a prestigious American institution. Moreover, he finds when reading The Glass Bead Game of Hesse that his own Romanian-Orthodox tradition has an authentic tradition of meditation (in the Philokalia). Finally, he has discovered that Mircea Eliade, a Romanian, is an important figure in the study of religion.

We would like to begin by encouraging our young Romanian-American reader and indeed all our other readers to (re)-read Orthodox Monasticism 14, The Charism of Discernment, before continuing. The content of that post is quite relevant to the issues at hand.

Next, let us look at the practical situation (as we suppose) of a young Romanian-Orthodox in a prestigious secular boarding school in the United States who feels a religious emptiness. It will become clear why we emphasize ‘prestigious’. In Orthodox Monasticism 14 we discussed how when he was baptized our young Orthodox reader received the Holy Spirit, and how that Holy Spirit cleansed his mind or nous and united his mind or nous to itself, thus illuminating him. We pointed out that an Orthodox does not lose the Holy Spirit that he received in baptism except in cases of denial of Christ. We suppose that our reader has not denied Christ; he would have said so. Then why does he feel this emptiness?

He says that during his adolescence he has not practised his Orthodoxy as he ought. We imagine that part of this is precisely the boarding school: we do not think this is his first year there. And we know that the boarding school is ‘liberally secular’. Unfortunately, it is not clear how often our reader was attending the mysteries (communion) as a child. It would be helpful to know this, because then we would be able to judge how close to God he is. But let us assume that he at least went to Church and received communion a number of times a month. But he has grown distant from the Church, as many of us do in adolescence. Now he discovers not only emptiness, but some indications that even by the standards of his liberally secular boarding school, there might be something about Orthodoxy that is genuine. What should he do?

This is a very complicated matter in the psychology of religious conversion, in the psychology of religion. Basically, our reader is faced with a re-conversion to Orthodoxy from his vantage point—i.e. from where he actually is now spiritually. This is not to suggest that he must be chrismated again, that he must seek martyrdom. We do not think that that is where things are. But, nonetheless, he feels distant from the Church. He is wondering what to do.

There is a parable in the Gospel of Luke called the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’. That parable speaks to our reader’s situation. Since the parable is so well known, and since this post is going to be much longer than usual, we will not post the text of the parable. Basically what happens is this: A man has two sons, an elder and a younger. The elder is well-behaved; the younger, not. The younger says to his father, ‘Give me what is due to me and I am leaving.’ The father says, ‘Okay.’ (Under Jewish law, the father was obliged to give his estate as an inheritance in two equal parts to his sons when he died. The younger son is demanding his inheritance now.) The younger son takes his inheritance and spends it in debauchery (shades of The Brothers Karamazov!). He ends up broke. Down and out, he gets a job herding pigs. To the Jew, pigs are unclean: the younger son is truly down and out. Not only is he herding pigs, but he is hungry and wants to eat pig-food to fill his belly. Moreover, he is probably sleeping under a tree. After a time of this he comes to himself and says, ‘Why am I here herding pigs and eating pig-food when my father’s hired servants are eating well and have a roof over their head? I will go to my father and say to him that I have sinned and would he please make me a hired servant.’ So he does. He goes back to his father with that in mind. When his father hears of that his son is coming, he runs out of the house to meet him, when his son is still far off, saying to a servant to slaughter the fatted calf so that they can have a party. He puts a good set of clothes on his son—who has said to his father what he had decided to say when he was herding pigs—and a ring on his finger.

What is this all about? When we Orthodox sin, we are faced with a barrier between us and our Father who is in the Heavens. We feel an emptiness. We realize that something is wrong. We are the younger son who has squandered his inheritance on wine, women and song, lost everything and come to herding pigs. Although we might be in a prestigious private school in the United States, our interior state might be that of a New Testament Jew herding pigs. It is hard to explain this aspect of the psychology of salvation. We might be living in the midst of wealth and privilege and we might be unhappy. We might feel an emptiness; we might feel that something is wrong. Nowadays, when we grow up in America, we seldom have a good religious formation in our childhood, and even if we do have this inheritance we squander it on sin. The problem is to return to the Father’s house and to say, ‘I’m sorry.’

It is not easy to do this in the context of an upper-class American boarding school, or even an upper-class American university. As our reader must have realized by now living as he is among the upper class of America, the upper class in America is mixed up. It has issues. It is far from God. Moreover, the strangest thing is, our young reader might feel this emptiness, this sense that something is wrong or missing, while his classmates blithely continue living like animals: they might have no idea whatsoever that anything is missing whatsoever from their lives. They have issues; they see therapists; but there is no aching for God in them. And they might continue like this their whole lives, militantly opposed to religion, living a dissolute life of one kind or another, possibly passing from one therapist to another, possibly passing from one recreational drug to another, ultimately committing suicide with medical assistance when the thread of their life runs out in a case of cancer or AIDS. And the whole time not having the same consciousness of the absence of God that our young reader has. Fr Sophrony discusses this sort of thing in his autobiography, We Shall See Him as He Is.

The only possible spiritual road for our young reader, if indeed this is his situation, is this: On the human level, he is faced with considering his Romanian-Orthodox past. On the human level, he might reject it and join with his classmates in their debauchery. But he will always be just slightly out of step with them: he will always know the spiritual emptiness of which they are blithely unaware, the dimension of the sacred that is just words and fairy-tales to them. However, will he simply start going to Church again? We think not—that is, we think that the issue is deeper and will require more spade-work. Essentially, on the spiritual level, our young reader—and he is no different from us or from anyone else—is going to have to follow the cycle of the prodigal son through. That is, having awakened to the issue of the existence of God—a good time to be reading Karamazov—he is going to have to ‘fight it out’ in his soul: he will have to reach the stage spiritually in his heart of herding pigs and living on pig-food until he repents and returns to the Father’s house. This does not at all mean that he must or will drop out of school. This is a spiritual matter: he will have to fight it out with God up to the time he realizes that the Orthodox Church teaches the Gospel and that the Gospel is the truth. In cases of serious spiritual pride, as in the case of Tolstoy, he might die before he has done that. (The same Elder at Optina who remarked that Dostoyevsky was a man who repented, remarked, after speaking for 8 hours straight with Tolstoy, that Tolstoy had great pride.) In some cases, a person caught in this dynamic might literally end up a bum on the Bowery, an alcoholic who repents and accepts Jesus. Or again, he might die before he repents, and thus be lost. However, these are extreme cases. A lesser case might be that of a prosperous lawyer whose family all leave him because of his pride (although possibly even they might not understand precisely what the real issue is); and although the lawyer has not lost his career, his life is shattered: only then can he realize that something is wrong and that he has to be reconciled with God. Another man might be dying and encounter a priest who hears confessions passing through the ward; God might give him the grace to call the confessor over. We cannot humanly say. These are the judgements of our Lord.

However, in every case, the person must come to his wit’s end, be humbled by a suffering so intense that his pride is broken by his need to repent. And the degree of suffering seems to be in direct proportion to the degree of spiritual pride.

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