Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Mercy Towards the Neighbour

This then is eternal life, that they know you the only true God and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ (John 17, 3).

Well, we’re back. We thought that the Parable of the Good Samaritan would be a good continuation of the previous post so we decided to provide it in translation.

Some remarks: It should be clear from the above quotation from John that eternal life is none other than the communion in the Uncreated Church that we discussed in the previous post, the participation in the uncreated communion of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity that we receive in seed in our baptism through our reception, by the mercy of our Lord, of the Holy Spirit, through the Cross.

Next, Luke insists that although Jesus’ interlocutor in the Parable is speaking well to Jesus, he does not have a pure heart: he is testing Jesus rather than approaching him in humility to learn (in this, compare Nicodemus in John 3).

A Levite would be similar to a monk.

Samaritans did not have dealings with Jews. For a Samaritan to help a Jew was unusual. Today, it might be the same, given people’s attitudes, if it were said that a Muslim was passing by and helped a Christian when the Christian priest and the Christian monk had passed the fellow Christian by.

Oil and wine, apart from any symbolic significance they might have had, were basic pharmaceuticals of the day. This was the proper way to bandage an open wound.

A denarius (pl: denarii) is said to have been a day’s wage for a labourer. Not a trivial amount.

Here is the parable:

And behold a certain teacher of the Law stood up testing him and asking: ‘Teacher, having done what will I inherit eternal life?’ He then said to him: ‘In the Law what has been written? How do you read?’ He then, having answered, said: ‘You will love the Lord your God from all of your heart and from all of your soul and from all of your strength and from all of your intellect; and your neighbour as yourself.’ He then said to him: ‘You have answered rightly. Do this and live.’ He then, wishing to justify himself, said to Jesus: ‘And who is my neighbour?’ Taking up the thread, Jesus then said: ‘A certain man was descending from Jerusalem to Jericho and robbers fell upon him. And, stripping him and laying wounds on him, they departed leaving him in a state near death. By coincidence, then, a certain priest was descending in that way and, seeing him, passed by on the other side. Likewise then also a Levite, happening on the place, coming up and looking passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan who was travelling came up to him and seeing him had compassion. And, approaching him, he bandaged his wounds, pouring out oil and wine. Then having mounted him on his own beast of burden, he led him to the lodging-place and took care of him. And the next day, departing, taking out two denarii he gave them to the innkeeper and said to him: “Take care of him and whatever you expend in addition I will repay you when I come back.” Which of these three seems to you to have become a neighbour to him you fell among the robbers?’ He said: ‘He who showed mercy to him.’ Jesus then said to him: ‘Go and do likewise.’ (Luke 10, 25 – 37.)

Monday, 24 December 2007

The Mercy of God

In what might be our last post for this calendar year, we would like, as a summary of our posts for this year, to turn to the mercy of God:

And his mercy is upon those who fear him for generations of generations (Luke 1, 50).

We are all sinners. A trite expression of the preacher, it’s Christmas. But let us consider the mercy of God upon us. Adam sinned; so did Eve. They were expelled from Paradise. Things have gone downhill since then. End of story.

Let us consider our own sins. Is there anyone among us without sin? Is there anyone among us who can look honestly at his own past life and say: ‘I am free of sin; I don’t need this Christian nonsense?’

Usually people with arrogance say: ‘I have a right to do what I want because there is no God—and not because I have not sinned. I just don’t accept that these moral norms apply to me. I am above this petty human moral law.’

But let us suppose that such a man comes to remorse after a sin. Let’s say he’s killed someone while ‘driving under the influence’. Let’s say it’s a young mother. He’s made a child an orphan, a husband who loves his wife a widower. He knew it was wrong to drink so much and then drive.

Let’s say that he goes to prison for his sin. The law of men, especially in the United States, has a rigorist, rationalist approach to things that finds it hard to deal with people as people. That would be favoritism.

The guy does time in the slammer. Now, American justice has given up on reforming the sinner—this is standing ‘If you can’t pay the time then don’t do the crime,’ on its head so that it reads ‘We have a menu of what each crime will cost you,’—and gives our man six months in a medium-security prison.

Not having been guests of the American government in one of its reformatories, we do not know the details of either what you pay for a DUI resulting in death or what conditions are like in the prison where you pay off your ‘debt to society’. So let’s just assume six months in a medium-security joint.

The guy has a lot of time to think. Now after rationalizing that he’s been shafted and plotting in his mind’s eye to off the judge when he gets out, he calms down a little with the pleasant routine of prison life and starts to think. He realizes willy-nilly, half-admitting it to himself, half-denying it, that he’s done a sin. He’s killed a pleasant young woman because he was arrogant enough to drive while under the influence thinking he is above all moral laws, because he is who he is.

He starts to feel bad. The prison psychiatrist—if there is one—might think he’s suffering from depression. He certainly is unhappy. There he is in prison; his family’s not happy; his wife—will she finally divorce him?—is icy with him on her few visits; his boss wants to get rid of him. But what really bugs him is the realization that he’s killed someone for no good reason, because of his sin.

Humanly speaking, the fellow is a jerk. And he’s killed someone.

Here’s where the mercy of God comes in. Essentially, without God, no one of us is any different from this guy. We fool ourselves if we are thinking otherwise. We all have to come to our senses and realize that we are actual sinners. Sometimes it’s a rough journey. We discussed this in this post, and this post (really the first two parts of the same post) in a completely different context.

Sometimes we die without having come to that realization. These are the mysterious and inscrutable judgements of God on us—for what is going to happen after death if we leave without repenting of our sins?

In any event, the mercy of God is something that we experience when AS SINNERS we turn to God. While it might be considered preposterous or worse to compare the repentant sinner to the Virgin Mary, Her Who Bore God, let us look at the whole text of the Magnificat:

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. For he has looked down upon the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold from now all generations will pronounce blessings upon me. For the Strong One has done great things for me and Holy is his Name. And his mercy is upon those who fear him for generations of generations. He has established dominion in his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thought of their heart. He has brought the mighty down from their thrones and raised up the humble. He has filled the hungering with good things and sent away empty-handed those who are gathering wealth. He has defended Israel, his servant, so as to remember to the Age mercy to Abraham and to his seed [sing.], just as he spoke to our fathers. (Luke 1, 46 – 55.)

When we turn to God in Jesus Christ, God turns to us in mercy. We too experience something of the Holy Spirit that overshadowed the Mother of God, so that we can understand a little what would move her to pronounce those words.

Mary’s experience of being overshadowed by God came to her at the Annunciation.

And the Word was made flesh.’

Why was the Word made flesh?

Because God in his mercy loves mankind and wishes all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

Getting back to the guy in prison, the mercy of God is this, that if he too turns to God, God will turn to him. And even if he doesn’t get out of the slammer early, and even if his wife does divorce him, and even if his boss finds a legally valid reason to sack him, and even if his children can’t stand the sight of him, he too will say: ‘Blessed be the God who has saved me.’

The most essential act of mercy is the incarnation of the Word into human flesh so that all men might be saved.

This is the essence of the mystery. St Athanasios the Great of Alexandria put it this way: ‘God became man so that Man might be made god.’ So not only are we ‘saved’ in a juridical sense, but we are made gods by grace. This applies even to the fellow in prison. Or to us.

This is the sense of St Paul’s remark to the Corinthians: they experienced great grace—even the fullness of the grace we are talking about—but some of them were formerly murderers.

Moreover, we receive this adoption as sons and daughters of God, this adoption as gods by grace, in seed in our baptism through our reception of the Holy Spirit in that baptism.

This is what Elder Porphyrios means by the Uncreated Church: in baptism we enter into uncreated communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, into the uncreated communion which they eternally have with one other, through our reception in baptism, by the mercy of God, of the Holy Spirit.

All we have to do is turn to God. He will turn to us, for his mercy is to the Age. The rest is our making an effort to draw close to Jesus and to his Father and to the Holy Spirit in their uncreated communion.

So let us not think that we are not acceptable to God. And let us not think that a method is what will save us. Yes, let us pray the Jesus Prayer but let us pray it once from the heart. And let us all say: ‘Blessed be God the Merciful who saved us in Christ Jesus our Lord, our Saviour, whose Incarnation we celebrate December 25.’

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
—Orthodox Monk

Wednesday, 12 December 2007


Blessed are those who show mercy, for they will be shown mercy. (Matt. 5, 7.)

One of our readers will be baptized day after tomorrow along with his family. By way of our final blessing, we would like to admonish him and his family: God has shown great mercy to you. Do you also in the same way.

While Shakespeare is not one of our primary sources, he has got it right on the nature of mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.

The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I.

We say again to our friend and brother along with his family: Do you also in the same way until you die.

To all, we would like to remark on the nature of mercy. First of all, the blessing in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus pronounces on those who show mercy provides us with a variant of ‘Pascal’s Wager’. As we all know, Pascal’s original wager was this: ‘We lose nothing if we believe, but if it’s true, we gain Heaven. Hence, it’s a good bet.’ Our variant: God promises us that he will show us mercy if we ourselves show mercy to others. God can’t break his own word. Therefore, even if we are arrant sinners, it behoves us to show mercy to others even if we do nothing at all else virtuous: we can’t lose because God is obliged by his own word to show us mercy.

In our last post, we discussed forgiving the other. Forgiving the other and showing mercy to him are not quite the same thing although they are clearly related.

As Shakespeare makes clear, mercy tempers justice. There is no indication in the history of Christianity that mercy treats the wrong as right or the right as wrong: the presupposition of mercy is that the other has sinned, perhaps not against us but somewhere. Mercy looks to him in whose power it is to punish the wrongdoer and beseeches of him not justice but forgiveness of the punishment which is due to the other, the wrongdoer.

Hence, it is a mistaken reading of Christianity to use Jesus’ admonition to mercy as an excuse not to treat sin as sin. That is something different, a deep confusion within us about the nature of truth.

In the case that the other has sinned against us, our Christian duty to forgive him might extend in the case of mercy to the restoration of relations of previous intimacy. But again, we ourselves would not counsel such a course willy-nilly: it behoves us to see things clearly in prudence and wisdom and to proceed not on the basis of our hurt or even on the basis of a naïve application of the Gospel, but on the basis of what is spiritually the soundest course. In the history of Orthodox monasticism this is what has been called discernment. In this post, we provided St John of Sinai’s definition of discernment:

23, 1 Discernment, first, is in beginners the true deep knowledge of things which pertain to themselves; in intermediates, then, the spiritual sense which faultlessly discriminates among that which is really good, that which is naturally good and the opposite (i.e. the bad); in the perfect, finally, that spiritual knowledge existing within the perfect which comes about through divine enlightenment and which is strong enough to illuminate that which exists darkly in others.

O perhaps most generally this is known to be and in fact is discernment: the sure possession of the will of God in every time and place and thing, which exists only in those who are pure in heart and body and mouth. Discernment is an unspotted conscience and a pure sense.

The meaning of discernment we need in the context of forgiving and showing mercy is this one: ‘the spiritual sense which faultlessly discriminates among that which is really good, that which is naturally good and the opposite (i.e. the bad)’. In other words, discernment is the spiritual sense which allows us to see correctly what the true good is in the situation we find ourselves, as opposed to the apparent good and as opposed to the bad; or which provides us with ‘the sure possession of the will of God’ in the particular situation.

Now it might be thought by the naïve that the will of God as defined in the Gospel is invariably that we forgive and get along. While it is true that the invariable will of God is that we forgive and show the other mercy insofar as it is in our power, discernment tells us what that means practically in the situation in hand.

This is true even of the ruler. In other words, someone has sinned against us, or against someone else, and it is in our power to forgive him or to show him mercy. Wisdom (i.e. discernment) tells us what that means practically in the situation in hand. We do forgive so that inter alia we are free of anger towards the other (we wonder about the quality of forgiveness of a Christian who is still angry with the other) but we don’t necessarily ‘let him go’: that depends on a discernment of what the will of God is in the case in hand.

We are reminded of a Byzantine saint, Theodore of Sykeon (April 22) we think, into whose presence was brought a condemned murderer. He ordered that the man be unbound. They said, ‘He’s violent’. The saint replied ‘Don’t worry.’ They unbound him. The man ran over and sat at the saints feet. The saint counselled him that being executed paid for the sin he had committed, if indeed he had committed it, or for other sins if he had not. The man departed from the saint’s presence in peace. He was executed. The saint made no effort to prevent his execution.

This is not a defense or condemnation of capital punishment. It is a remark that the saint discerns in the matter of hand what the will of God is in that situation. St Theodore discerned that the thing to do in the situation at hand was to prepare the condemned man for execution. When two Byzantine co-emperors visited St Maximos Kavsokalyvis (January 13) on Mt Athos, he admonished them to show mercy to wrongdoers. One of the co-emperors later became a monk.

So, to return from our general remarks to our reader who is about to be baptized: May God grant you a heart that shows mercy.

Orthodox Monk

Wednesday, 28 November 2007


...And forgive us our debts
as we have forgiven our debtors...

The most difficult thing to do is to forgive someone.

Why should it be?

Jesus is rather severe with his disciples on the matter of forgiveness of sins: ‘Unless you forgive your brother from the heart, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive you.’

When the other has sinned against us, we are injured in our self-esteem. Forgiving the husband who has sinned against our marriage requires humility. Forgiving the brother who has sinned against his commitments to us and who has consciously attempted to humiliate us requires humility.

Our self-love is damaged by the sin of the other and only humility can bring us to forgive the other. This can be quite a struggle. It may require us to pray to God to grant us forgiveness of the other: we must bring forth our weakness to God so that he might help us to make that gesture of Christian love which is forgiveness.

To forgive the other we have to open our heart to him or her, even if he or she is thousands of miles away. This is painful. We don’t want to do it. We want to hate the other, the one who has sinned against us.

We are reminded of a story. A missionary in Africa told us that he had wronged a pet chimpanzee. Now chimpanzees aren’t stupid. There the chimpanzee is in his cage. He bides his time. When the missionary approaches unsuspecting, he picks up some mud from the floor of the cage and slings it in his face.

This is a true story.

This is what we want to do. We don’t want to forgive our husband, our brother. We want to sling mud in their face.

When we look into our own heart we see that we really don’t want to give up our self-love in order to forgive the other. We have to pray for the grace to forgive the other. We have to recognize that our pride is preventing us from forgiving the other.

Christmas is notorious in the helping professions for the strains it puts on family life. Family scenes, even murders, happen around Christmas. One of the reasons is that we harbour resentments towards our close family members because of the sins they have committed—against us! How dare they!

Now a beginning to preventing family scenes and worse at Christmas is to make an attempt from now to forgive the other.

How should we proceed?

Well, we have already mentioned one way: we might pray to Jesus to help us to forgive the other. That is already an act of humility, already a recognition of our weakness.

The next thing we could do, if we have a problem with forgiveness, is to go to confession. This is not to suggest that we are at fault—after all, the other may really have sinned against us—but it is to suggest that ‘cleaning out the pot’ of our heart will make us see things a little bit more clearly when we look into ourselves regarding the person who has sinned against us. A good confession might make us just a little bit humbler, which is a beginning on the road to forgiving the other.

And of course, part of being able to forgive the other is to recognize that we ourselves are sinners who are in need of the forgiveness that Jesus proffered.

Forgiving the other doesn’t necessarily mean cozying up to them. If someone has given us a beating on the street, it is one thing to forgive them, another to go out drinking with them: we have to judge in prudence and common sense what we should do about the other once we have forgiven them.

Once we have forgiven, then we are free. There is no longer a conflict in our heart; there is no longer a problem in our relations with the other. We see clearly in love even if we see clearly from a distance. For once we have forgiven we have a clarity that will allow us to judge what to do. And that might mean having nothing further to do with the person on any level of intimacyor it might mean just the opposite: we have to exercise wisdom and prudence. And forgiveness gives us the freedom and clarity to allow us to judge correctly what to do.

Monday, 26 November 2007

On Becoming an Orthodox Monk

Many people wonder how to become an Orthodox monk. This blog, ‘Orthodox Monk’, attempts to answer that question after a fashion and according to how we, the blog author, understand Orthodox monasticism.

This blog has been composed much like a book. The curious will find information on becoming an Orthodox monk not in a specific post but in the blog taken as a whole. If anyone is interested in ‘Orthodox Monk’s views on how to become an Orthodox monk, they should read the archives of this blog.

In particular we recommend that they read the full text of the tonsure to the Great Schema. We have also posted separately basic commentary on the meaning of the vows and more general commentary on the broader implications of the vows. These links are also available at the beginning of the post that has the full text of the tonsure.

Now the curious might think that Orthodox monasticism is interesting but that the Great Schema is beyond his or her abilities. That may or may not be true. However, the Great Schema is the standard and criterion of all Orthodox monasticism. A detailed study of the Service of Tonsure to the Great Schema is important for the curious seeker who wishes to understand ‘what Orthodox monasticism is all about’. There is a principle in liturgical studies: ‘As the Church prays, so it believes.’ A primary source for the theology of Orthodox monasticism is the actual Service of Tonsure to the Great Schema where the Orthodox Church prays corporately.

That having been said, here is a summary of our views on becoming an Orthodox monk or nun:

First of all, you have to be a member of the Orthodox Church. In this regard we would caution the curious that out there is a plethora of pseudo-Orthodox churches, jurisdictions and monasteries which are more nests of snakes than havens of salvation. We would strongly recommend that any reader who is not a member of a canonical Orthodox Church—a Church in communion with the Patriarchs and Archbishops of the various national churches that are historically recognized as Orthodox—get his or her position regularized before proceeding further in actualizing his or her interest in Orthodox monasticism. No point setting sail in a rotten ship.

Next, becoming an Orthodox monk or nun is not like becoming a lawyer or doctor or accountant. A lawyer or doctor or accountant can practise wherever he wants in his jurisdiction. You have to become a monk or nun in a particular monastery. That monastery has to be recognized by the particular jurisdiction that you belong to. Part of the process of becoming an Orthodox monk or nun is finding a monastery suitable for you. In the history of Orthodox monasticism, this has ordinarily been seen as a matter of finding an Elder who can guide you and of joining yourself to that Elder in the monastery where he himself is located. Be that as it may, no one becomes an Orthodox monk or nun ‘at large’: a monk or nun must always be written into some monastery or other, whether or not he or she has found a particular guide in that monastery. And that monastery is ultimately under the authority of the local Bishop.

Next, Orthodox monasticism is difficult. It is not for everyone. As Christ himself says in the Gospel concerning the life of chastity: ‘This word is not for everyone but for those to whom it has been given.’ To become an Orthodox monk or nun, you have to be called.

Next, a study of the text of the vows of the Great Schema will make clear just what is being renounced and what is being embraced. Do not be deceived. The monastery is not a refuge for homosexuals, paedophiles, those fearful of the opposite sex or those who cannot ‘make it in the world’. It is a difficult life. It is for those who seek to unite themselves to God. For those who are willing to struggle to do so.

The Service of Tonsure includes the admonition: ‘You have chosen a good work (in becoming a monk or nun), but only if you bring it to completion.’ People fall on the way. That is why there is always a period of novitiate. The postulant has to test the monastery and test himself or herself—and be tested!—whether he or she really has a vocation and to that particular monastery: whether he or she can carry their cross in the particular monastery where they are doing their novitiate. And as the service of tonsure points out, the crosses get heavier, not lighter, as the monastic life proceeds.

You have to be in love to become a monk or nun—in love with Jesus, in love with his Father, in love with the Holy Spirit. You have to be determined, unwilling to back down. But at the same time humble and obedient. We do not come to the monastery expecting Grace to be showered down on us but the calling of the monk or nun is to a union in love with the Holy Trinity in this life—to the extent possible given who we are and given the human condition of life in the flesh.

Next, the canons of the Orthodox Church forbid a monk from seeking ordination to the priesthood: ordination must be offered by his Superior. The importance of this is that the postulant has to be clear in his mind just what his vocation really is and what he can expect once he becomes a monk. We do not come to the monastery expecting to become teachers: those who want to teach others, assuming that they are not just confused, should consider the priesthood rather than the monastic life. The case of the unmarried priest is special and does not really belong to the scope of this blog.

Finally, you have to be right with God to become a monk or nun. Do you attend Church? Do you go to confession? Do you lead a moral life? These are fundamental questions that we must ask ourselves. Start with a good confession to a sound priest. Discuss with him your interest in the monastic state. See what he has to say. And may God direct your steps.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007


When I was an infant, I spoke as an infant, I thought in the manner of an infant, I calculated as an infant; when I became a full-grown man I abolished the things of an infant. For now we see in an enigma by means of a mirror, then face to face; now I know in part but then I will know just as I have been known. Now, then, there remain faith, hope and spiritual love, these three things; the greatest of these is spiritual love.

(I Cor. 13, 11 – 13.)

What role does hope play in the life of the Orthodox monk and, in general, the Orthodox Christian?

Let us look at the role of hope in the life of an Orthodox Christian who has a mystical orientation. One way to look at Orthodoxy is to treat it as the ‘mystical’ form of Christianity. This would be to treat Orthodoxy as a road to gnosis of the one true God—perhaps one road among many in various religions—whereas other forms of Christianity are hung up on institutional parameters or worse. From this point of view, hope really doesn’t play a role: what we are interested in is a set of techniques, notably the Jesus Prayer, which will bring us to gnosis. In this take on religion, Orthodoxy has embedded in it a particularly interesting form of yoga—perhaps without the hierarchs of the Orthodox Church really understanding that.

Let us consider St Paul, who wrote the above passage. St Paul was transported in an ecstasy to the Third Heaven where he heard words ‘which it is not lawful for man to speak’. He qualifies as a mystic. Yet in the passage above, he says: ‘now we see in an enigma by means of a mirror, then face to face; now I know in part but then I will know just as I have been known.’ The ‘then’ that St Paul is referring to is not a condition of gnosis of God in a mystical experience in the present life but a condition of gnosis of God in the Parousia; or, if you will, in the Second Coming; or even, again, in part after our death. Hence, St Paul, the mystic par excellence of the Orthodox Church, thinks that our gnosis of God before the Parousia is partial. Moreover, he says that in this life three things remain: faith, hope and spiritual love, of which the greatest is spiritual love.

Now the Parousia is the wedding of the Bridegroom, Jesus, with his Bride, the Church: this wedding is consummated with the Church as a whole, yes, but also with each member of the Church as an individual person: each Orthodox Christian’s union with Jesus and with God the Father in the Parousia is a personal matter: we are not kneaded into faceless bread.

This means that in the Parousia our gnosis is not merely a matter of an intellectual gnosis of God but also of a union in spiritual love of two persons. This union of spiritual love certainly includes a dimension of intellectual gnosis, we have no intention of denying that. We are merely emphasizing that that is not the only aspect of this union.

Hence when we enter into the bridal chamber of Christ, we consummate our union with him as a person. This marriage ultimately takes place in the Parousia.

Now we cannot expect the fullness of this spiritual marriage in the present life. This is not to say that even in this life there is not a spiritual condition of union with the Holy Spirit, and thus with the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. However, because we are still in the flesh, ‘...now we see in an enigma by means of a mirror ... now I know in part’. In no case in this life is our union with the Holy Trinity consummated in fullness. Because of that, ‘...there remain faith, hope and spiritual love...’.

Moreover, because we are in the flesh, as Christians we live the imitation of Christ. By that we mean that just as Christ carried his Cross and was crucified, so we too must carry our Cross and be crucified with Christ. The Gospel is clear: ‘He who would be my disciple...’. Hence, although we may wish to overlay a yogic template on Orthodox Christianity so as to use it as a method of yoga leading to intellectual gnosis of God in this life, which intellectual gnosis would be our ‘enlightenment’, as baptized members of the Orthodox Church we are inserted into a different dynamic, that of carrying the Cross of Christ while we are in this flesh even if we are in fact mystics.

And that is where hope comes in.

Let us take the case of the two thieves who were crucified with Christ. The one blasphemed Christ in despair over his future—after all, there he was on the cross dying—while the other expressed faith and hope in Christ and was saved.

The good thief died in hope while the second thief died in despair. This stark choice is open to every Christian in the adverse circumstances that he encounters in his life.

As we have pointed out, because of the nature of Christianity as the imitation of Christ, the Orthodox Christian is sure to encounter the Cross. The Orthodox Christian is sure to encounter adversity. On that, both the Gospel and St Paul are clear.

Moreover, it might be pointed out that in early times Christians were often sent to the mines to labour until they dropped dead. In more recent times, in the greatest persecution of the Orthodox Church in its history, Orthodox Christians were sent to the Gulag to die. Some returned, having been transformed, as Solzhenitsyn remarks somewhere, into fire.

A small digression: We have wondered about ‘Supermax’ penitentiaries in the United States such as the one in Florence, Colorado. They seem to us ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ as banned by the US Bill of Rights. That is precisely because the penal regime seems calculated to induce despair in the inmate. By all accounts, after a short time the inmate ‘rots’. He is kept in solitary confinement in a cement cell without amenities for 23 hours a day and allowed 1 hour a day of solitary exercise in the prison yard. And this until he dies. While these men are dangerous, surely this regime is far beyond anything necessary for the security of the state: surely this is a vindictive punishment designed to destroy the man. It would take a spiritual giant to keep hope in such a situation.

We will encounter adversity whether we deserve it or not. Sometimes we are in the position of the good thief who is being punished justly for his sins; sometimes we are in the position of Job, tempted by the Devil through the permission of God as a test of his faith. And this despite the fact that we may be accomplished practitioners of the Jesus Prayer and therefore doing quite well, thank you, according to the false model of Orthodox Christianity as the ‘mystical road of Orthodoxy’ that leads us where all the mystics of all the Ages have gone.

What is the characteristic of hope? It is precisely that we do not fall into despair in adversity. It is not that we do not experience the adversity as adversity, that we do not experience the pain, whether of body or of soul, as pain, but that we do not succumb to despair. We do not lose our faith in Jesus; we do not lose our cool; we do not give up.

In this regard we might look at some hope substitutes. The classic substitute is the bottle: a shot of whiskey makes things look bright. Two shots of whiskey makes things look even brighter. Even a monk can fall into this temptation. Then there are the various ‘recreational drugs’ that take the place of hope, the various pills. These things are classically pursuits of a culture that lives for the moment; that is not oriented to the Parousia, whatever the culture might think it believes; that does not live in hope. (This is not to deny that everything from whiskey to pills has a proper use in its time and place: we are not anti-medicine.)

Someone we know who is quite wealthy is caught somewhere in this trap: mixed up, she has passed from cocaine to compulsive sex. She is in various therapies. She has studied meditation with the best teachers at the best oriental monasteries. Now she thinks she is an atheist. She is not stupid but she is chained in her own ‘Supermax’ of the spirit—‘without hope in the world’, as St Paul says.

The classic case is of course the cancer patient. There is really no cure for most forms of cancer and ultimately most cancer patients are going to experience severe pain and/or the conscious realization that they are dying. Here prayer is important, but even more important is hope: the cancer patient must not lose hope.

Those of us who suffer from emotional or cognitive disorders must also be careful not to lose hope.

Even if the adversities we suffer on a dreary Fall day are not as serious as all that, still as Orthodox Christians we must maintain hope. And that hope is something given to us by the presence of the Holy Spirit in us. Does not the Divine Liturgy pray that God might send down upon us the gift of the Holy Spirit? But we must cooperate with the Holy Spirit and refuse the thoughts that lead us to doubt and despair.

Best Wishes to All
Orthodox Monk

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Orthodox Monk Has Come Back From ‘Second Life’

Orthodox Monk has come back from ‘Second Life’ to compose a post on popular culture and the Orthodox, and stumbled on the live televised presentation in the presence of the President of the United States, of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama. One fantasy to another.
We were originally intending to discuss popular culture and here we have another sort of popular culture: the ‘Presentation of the Colors’, the singing of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, the self-congratulation of the American authorities in the face of the Chinese oppression of the Tibetans. Bizarre.
Let us start with ‘Second Life’. We originally got interested in it because it seemed to be very popular. So we signed up. We have spent some hours wandering around and talking to several long-time denizens of ‘Second Life’.
In Second Life’, you chat with a real personsavatar’—his personal animated icon. Each person has control over the appearance and behaviour of his avatar. He is on-line and gives you, through the mask of his self-created on-line identity, whatever answer he wants to give you, whatever behaviour he wants to show you. You can purchase animations for ALL aspects of human behaviour within Second Life’. Private parties sell these animations. These animations constitute the repertoire of behaviours that your avatar can engage in with other avatars.
The conversations take place in an animated environment that it is possible for a person to buy a piece of. He can then build a building, plant trees and decorate his stake according to his taste. This is all animated. For a price he can upload his own visual furnishings into Second Life’.
A person can move around this animated environment via a variety of techniques. His avatar has a location in space and can converse in public with avatars found in the same space. It is also possible to send a private IM (instant message) to an avatar either locally or at a distance.
If the person is off-line, the best you can do is send him an IM (instant message), which he later picks up coming on-line.
Its an animated chat-room dedicated to people role-playing their dreams.
In Second Life’, for a price there is the possibility of setting up a group according to your taste and of inviting others to join it; there is also the possibility, usually free, of joining existing groups. So there is a very strong aspect of social networking in Second Life’. We are struck by the degree to which Americans seek out social networking: they must find their culture very lonely.
Some Real Life organizations have outposts in ‘Second Life’. These outposts are explicitly identified with the organization’s Real Life identity and carry out promotional work for the organization.
We imagine that some Real Life organizations also have a covert presence in ‘Second Life’, just as they do on Wikipedia.
Second Life’ is important. It is probably one of the most important recent inventions in popular culture.
On the other hand, if we were a parent (as we are writing these words, we are listening live to the boilerplate rhetoric in praise of the Dalai Lama) we would be very worried about letting our son wander around ‘Second Life’—and as for our daughter: well!
Most parents probably don’t realize just what their children have access to on the Web. Give your child a computer in his or her room, a web-cam and a broadband link to the Web—and there you go. It’s not just ‘Second Life’. There’s a whole lot on the Web that is just plain dangerous, not only for the immature but even for the mature.
One of the things that they have access to is a live video stream of the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama, just like Orthodox Monk has.
We now have the Allegro from Mozart’s ‘Divertimento in D’ with the Air Force Strings.
We got out of ‘Second Life’ rather dizzy this time. We had gone shopping for free goods. We tried to strike up a conversation in the shop with an overly sexy woman (we are describing her avatar). She was more genteel than some of the flesh in ‘Second Life’ but this is surely a matter of degree. There were prominent signs in the shop (its name is something Dove; you can find it in Inventory under Freebie) saying no weapons and no nudity and no self-advertising for escort services’. There must be a reason. The weapons range from hand-guns to knives to wands. This is a reflection of peoples fantasies but people’s fantasies are based on the life they know lived in the real world and in the media.
In our initial exposure to ‘Second Life’, we were rather struck by the very commercial orientation of Linden Lab, the creator of ‘Second Life’: everything in ‘Second Life’ is bought and sold. With a little real money you can get from Linden Lab a little on-line play money to buy these things. You can then make Linden play money doing business in Second Life’ and reconvert through Linden Lab the Linden play money to real money. We didnt check the spread that Linden is offering. Linden Lab evidently gets very, very rich.
This is the philosophy that is being promoted in ‘Second Life’. It’s not just about Linden Lab making money but the promotion of a money philosophy. It’s hard for us to explain. It’s a cultural thing: life is about money. This seems to be connected to other aspects of the Web.
We saw evidence in Second Life’ that some Second Life’ users were trying to make a buck and comments we heard in our conversations with avatars indicated that sex and money are the two big problems in Second Life’. We would add deranged religion to that list.
We did have a very long, pleasant and interesting conversation with one denizen of ‘Second Life’ who was very polite and very polished. She comes from a different culture. Sometimes, of course, she was a little harried and fell out of character. But we had the impression that we were dealing with a good soul—and one very delicate.
Now we have Eli Weisel in the presentation ceremony.
We also had a long talk with someone who was distressed with the commercialism and immorality of ‘Second Life’ and who wanted to do something about it. He was hoping to offer counselling to the denizens of ‘Second Life’ (he claimed to have training). This would be on-line counselling through his anonymous avatar at the place he has built in Second Life’.
We have no way of knowing if he is or is not a charlatan.
We were somewhat put off by his ‘build’ (his cyber-building; what his visitors see and experience when they visit his avatar at his place in Second Life’). We told him so with some suggestions for improvement. Since his build was a bit up our alley, we thought that we could tell him something without revealing that we had practical experience in the field: after all, we are anonymous too.
He was somewhat put off by our remarks and disappeared on us.
The truth of the matter is that—
The Dalai Lama is a man of true spiritual convictions….’ Eli Weisel.
As we listen to Eli Weisel, we wonder about American Civil Religion.
We’re now up to the Republican Leader of the House of Representatives.
We’re now up to the Republican Leader of the Senate.
This is going to go on for a while.
Now it’s Senator Reid.
Senator Reid thinks that there is no one in the world more deserving of the Congressional Gold Medal than the Dalai Lama.
We thought the United States was run by Evangelical Christians. What’s going on?
With this Gold Medal we affirm the special relationship between the Dalai Lama and the United States.’ Nancy Pelosi. (We are live-blogging without a recording so we might have a few words wrong.)
Roosevelt’s Gold Watch. The one he sent to the Dalai Lama as a child in Lhasa.
Just a simple monk.… Living manifestation of the Living Buddha.’ No such thing, Nancy. The Incarnation of the Buddhist God of Compassion. Chenrezig in Tibetan, Avalokitesvara in Sanskrit, Nancy. A Buddhist Bodhisattva, Nancy.
And then a pitch from Nancy Pelosi for the Chinese authorities to invite the Dalai Lama to Beijing.
If President Bush is indeed a fundamentalist Christian, how is he handling this? He’s sitting two metres away.
Unfortunately, a photo from TIME Magazine, which we came across a week after the event, seems to give us the answer.  (Update 2011-03-25: the TIME link we originally posted is now dead, so, claiming fair use, we insert a screen capture of the photo here:)

And today you bring peace to the capital (Capitol?) of the United States. Thank you and congratulations.’ Nancy Pelosi.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States.’
Thank you.’
Religious freedom and basic human rights. This is a pitch for religious pluralism in a liberal democratic context. We are rather surprised to hear this coming from President Bush. We thought that he was a fundamentalist Protestant elected by right-wing fundamentalists. Have his views been misrepresented?
Statue of Liberty at his bedside.’
When he first visited Washington, the Dalai Lama walked to the Jefferson Memorial.’ But Jefferson issued his own version of the Gospel with all the miracles deleted, George.
Do they know what the Dalai Lama teaches?
The Dalai Lama has the medal in his hand amidst flashes and applause.
Now he speaks. This we wanted to see.
He handles himself very well.
We are getting bored with the Dalai Lama. That we didn’t expect. Hes going on and on.
He firmly supports the President on the issues of religious freedom and democracy. The same and more for Nancy Pelosi.
He wants the Americans to help the dialogue with the Chinese leaders to move forward.
As a champion of freedom and democracy you must… Global warming…’
This seems a little trendy.
Isn’t this dangerous? If the United States weren’t at war, encouraging the Bush program of democracy would be okay—but with the United States at war and breathing the flames of an attack on Iran, isn’t this encouraging chaos? Isn’t this sowing the wind so as to reap the whirlwind?
Not a word about the wars that America is involved in and threatening to get involved in, not a word about human rights abuses by America.
We suppose that this might be marked up to upaya, skilful means, on the part of the Dalai Lama.
Given that the Chinese hold a trillion dollars in American paper, is presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama as part of a gesture of political pressure on Beijing, upaya, skilful means, on the part of America?
Deeply interconnected nature of today’s world.’ Well that’s what this post is about.
The Dalai Lama leaves arm-in-arm with the President of the United States. The Air Force Strings play a recessional.
The Dalai Lama’s speech was quite political.
Let’s get down to business. No, Orthodox Monk hasn’t been spending the last month or two in ‘Second Life’. That would be charming: ‘Orthodox Monk lost in ‘Second Life’. If spotted, please IM (instant message) the Abbot.’
We visited some of the religious stuff in ‘Second Life.’ Watch out. Bad vibes. There is some very clearly demonic stuff—even and especially in that which purports to be real religion and not outright occultism. Since ‘Second Life’ is all about dreams and since dreams are the province of demons, it shouldn’t surprise us that demons are influencing the people building personal stakes in ‘Second Life’. In this regard, it might be a laboratory for the enterprising psychologist. The enterprising monk doesn’t need such a laboratory. He has it in his cell. Ask St Silouan.
People act out dreams in ‘Second Life’. Sometimes the dreams are charming, as with the first person we had a long conversation with. Sometimes they are devilish. And this is what you and your children are getting involved with.
What is clear is that if you are a jerk in Real Life, you are a jerk in ‘Second Life’. If you are courteous in Real Life, you are courteous in ‘Second Life’. If you are a fundamentalist in Real Life, you are a fundamentalist in ‘Second Life’. If you are an artistic genius in Real Life—well, then, you might produce momentous work in ‘Second Life’.
People bring to Second Lifethe passions they have in Real Life. As we have been discussing, our passions are what the demons stimulate when they tempt us.
We also bring our talents and our virtues to Second Life’, but Second Life’ rather opens us up to the tempting influence of our passions, so that in Second Life’ we might fall rather more easily than we would at the breakfast table in front of our mother. And if we are unformed children, even 80 years old, we are truly defenceless lambs in the midst of ravenous lions.
Should Orthodox Monk strike up a charitable fund among his readers (say, via a PayPal tip jar in the margin of his blog) in order to get a big fast machine and a big fast broadband link and waste his time playing the philosopher to people wearing funny hats in ‘Second Life’? (For our visits to ‘Second Life’ we have been guests on another link far away from our home.)
On the Web people usually have polls about such things. We can announce the result in advance: It’s not for us. We think that there is room for a real Orthodox presence in ‘Second Life’, but given the obvious charlatanism masquerading as Orthodox Christianity in ‘Second Life’, you would have to be very, very strong spiritually and very, very bored in Real Life to become an Orthodox cyber-missionary to ‘Second Life’. Moreover, since there is so much deranged stuff in ‘Second Life’, how would anyone know you were legit? And how would you know that the person talking to you for your counsel was talking to you sincerely and honestly?
While we think that ‘Second Life’ is very important culturally, it reminds us a bit of the Haight-Ashbury in the 1960’s: there was a life-cycle, we understand from our reading, in the evolution of the Haight-Ashbury which led to its eventual demise as a living sub-culture. We wonder if ‘Second Life’ is not going to go through the same evolution, so that while the concept might be very important, the actual atmosphere in ‘Second Life’ might be such that good people will just leave for other parts while the hustlers move in, while the paedophiles prey on the young.
We noticed that there is a group in Second Life’ dedicated to eradicating paedophilia from Second Life’. As St Gregory of Nyssa remarked, people don't make laws about things that don't happen: if theres a Second Life’ group dedicated to eradicating paedophilia from Second Life’, there must be a reason.
That is not to say that a genius in art or theatre or architecture couldn’t do wonders in ‘Second Life’.
Well, so here is our post. Welcome back from Second Life’, Orthodox Monk. Try to do something about your own spiritual life.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

How to Choose a Monastery

Someone has sent us a brief email asking us if we can recommend a monastery for him to enter.

No we can’t.

This is a bit like asking someone: ‘Who should I marry?’

There are Elders in the Orthodox Church who are able to say—marry your friend Mary whom you’ve known since you were both 10 years old. Unfortunately, or fortunately, we are not such an Orthodox Elder.

There is great danger in requesting advice on the Internet: we are an anonymous blogger and the person who sent us the email has no idea who we are. As someone once said, ‘On the Internet, no one knows that you’re a dog.’ Bow-wow.

The first questions that should be asked are: Do you attend Church? Do you believe what the Orthodox Church believes? Do you attend the mysteries (sacraments) of the Church? Do you go to confession? Have you done any wrong to anyone? Have you corrected that wrong? And so on. We do not have the answers to these questions for the person who emailed us. We are not clairvoyant.

The first person to ask if you are interested in becoming a monk is your confessor: make a good confession and discuss with your confessor your interest in becoming a monk. Discuss with him your character and whether monasticism is suitable for you. If your confessor thinks that you are suited, discuss your weaknesses and your strengths with him, so that he can help you understand where you could fit in.

Every Orthodox monastery requires a period of novitiate. This is to test whether you are able to become a monk in the particular monastery that you are living in.

Finally, you should pray to God to help your confessor discern what the best thing for you to do is.

May God help you to find your way.

With best wishes—

—Orthodox Monk