Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Repentance 3

How do we bring someone to repentance?

The first way is ‘fire and brimstone’: threats of hellfire if the person doesn’t adhere to the right way of thinking, along with psychological coercion, perhaps violence.

A second way is love.

Our Lord used three approaches when preaching repentance: the threat of hellfire, the promise of a reward and the ideal of love between God and man as between Father and son. At no time did he engage in physical violence, even against those who were going to crucify him.

The Fathers consider that the first method, threats of hellfire, pertains to the person of the lowest rank spiritually: the person is a mere slave, a dullard who will do nothing unless the whip is close at hand.

The Fathers consider that the second method pertains to persons of the middle rank spiritually: those whose relationship to God and man is that of a hireling: they work for a reward, coolly adding everything up to see what is to their advantage, as if God were running a corporation.

The Fathers consider that the third method pertains to persons of the highest rank spiritually: those whose relationship to God and man is that of love. These persons consider that they are children of God; they often consciously bear God within themselves.

In our own humble experience, perhaps because we are dolts, we have never had good success when persons—say Evangelicals on the street—have applied the first method, the method of threats, to us. We don’t respond well. We have a distrust of fanaticism and fanatics find the first method congenial to their spirit: they can indulge their impassioned spirit in exhorting us to repent.

We would like to consider ourselves above the rank spiritual utilitarianism and opportunism implied by the second approach, that of the hireling, although spiritually we probably are even lower than such a straightforward calculus of costs and benefits. Pascal’s wager is at this second level.

In our humble experience we have found that when persons of genuine love—and a person knows intuitively when the other person has real love or is faking it—then we have responded well and the other person has been successful. He or she has been able to reach us and to get us to change our ways for the better.

It is also true that when we were young we were deceived by persons with a false love. It is well to consider in this regard what the Lord said, that if anyone’s will was to do the will of his Father, that person would know by a personal spiritual assurance whether the Lord’s teaching was from God or not. Hence, it might be considered that we are deceived by persons of a false love when we are not seeking God but the satisfaction of one of our passions.

In this regard it is also well to consider that in leading a man to repentance, God’s love might express itself in what might seem unusual ways: he might bring the man to the edge of death to help him understand just where he stands spiritually.

God might even might bring disaster upon the sinner. It is certain that God’s love is inerrantly aimed at our good, but we have to consider that that good is seen from the perspective of the loving God who is also just and cannot violate his love by being unjust. It would be unloving not to be just because it would be a lie.

In any event, we have found that an Elder of true spiritual love changes the world around him. It helps if he has charisms but it is his love that transforms the other: that love that seeks out the ‘lost sheep’ in the soul of the other and carries it on its shoulders to God.

May we all experience both the love of God and genuine repentance so as to become children of the Holy Trinity.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Theodor Bows out with Grace and Class

Theodor finally sent us an email by way of saying good-bye (for now), to which we replied:

Actually I like you, Theodor, but I'm exposed legally in the way I said and that is why I can't say anything. I wish you the best.

Orthodox Monk …

Theodor sent us this very graceful reply:

No problem, I didn't take it personally.

And to end with a quote...

Remember that you have only one soul;

that you have only one death to die;

that you have only one life, which is short and has to be lived by you alone;

and that there is only one glory, which is eternal.

If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing.

St Teresa of Avila (St Teresa of Jesus), 1515-1582

Numai bine si succes cu blogul [May the blog be only good; may it be the best],


St Teresa of Avila was, of course, the friend and comrade of St John of the Cross (1542 – 1591), who was the subject of our last post.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Dark Night Question

We have received the following question as an email.

Dear Orthodox Monk,

I got your email off your blog site and I just had a question. I noticed in one of your entries you mention St. John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul. It sounds like you've read it before. I'm just curious, as an Orthodox Christian, what is your opinion of this work? I have been unable to find any Orthodox critique of this work. Thank you.


It’s been a very long time since we read St John of the Cross. To give a full answer, we probably would have to consult with a member of the Carmelite Order. So our response is really off the cuff.

As near as we have been able to determine from our reading, as haphazard as it has been, the basic structure of the mystical ascent in St John of the Cross is three stages punctuated by two dark nights—between the first and second, and the second and third stages.

It seems clear to us that the three stages of the mystical ascent that St John of the Cross is using are those defined by Evagrius Ponticus and introduced into the West by St John Cassian. These are the purgative, illuminative and unitive stages. St John introduces the dark night of the senses—wherein the senses are purified so that the monk or nun might begin to contemplate intelligible (non-sensible) realities—between the purgative and illuminative stages; and the dark night of the soul between the illuminative and the unitive stages. The dark night of the soul appears to be a further purification of the soul so that the created spirit of man might be able to enter into habitual mystical union with God.

The breakdown of the mystical journey into these three stages, we understand from our reading, took hold all across Christendom from Spain to Mesopotamia (St Isaac the Syrian). So there would be no problem with it from an Orthodox point of view.

There is no record, however, in the Orthodox Hesychast tradition, of formal dark nights between the purgative and illuminative, and illuminative and unitive stages of the mystical ascent. This is not to say that St John of the Cross is to be dismissed out of hand as a heretic and deluder of others. It is not necessary—unless we have solid evidence for it—to take such a rigid approach to other Christians. St John obviously wrote on the basis of his own experience. We can exercise a tolerant attitude that preserves our own Orthodox identity, including the identity of the Orthodox Church as the true Church and Ark of Salvation, without anathematizing in our first breath everyone who believes differently. That way, we might be able to conduct a dialogue with others. Otherwise, it’s each to his bunker.

We understand that Staretz Sophrony (Sakharov) had an interest in St John of the Cross arising out of his own experience. Here we must point out that there is a tradition in Orthodoxy, again dating all the way back to Evagrius, of periods of abandonment by God. Hence, it might be thought that St John has formalized these periods of abandonment into dark nights and that that is why Staretz Sophrony found him interesting. But Staretz Sophrony’s immediate disciples might be able to explain this much better than we.

We would raise the following issues from our meager reading.

Putting the dark night of the senses between purgative and illuminative stages actually violates the Evagrian system as interpreted by St Isaac the Syrian. For St Isaac places the transition from the use of the senses to the exclusive contemplation of intelligible (non-sensible) realities in the middle of the illuminative stage, at the point that the mystic passes from contemplating the essences of created objects to the contemplation of angels. Of course, it may be that St John of the Cross either sees the point at which the purgative stage ends a little differently from the classic exposition in Evagrius, or understands the extent of the dark night of the senses a little differently than we ourselves do. This is the sort of thing that learned scholars debate.

There is something in Evagrius that would correspond to the dark night of the soul—the soul puts off the spiritual contemplation so as to approach God without images or concepts of any kind—but to us in our meager reading it did not seem to be so formalized as in St John of the Cross. Moreover, such a dark night does not seem to be present in St Isaac the Syrian.

Part of the problem is that while St John in our estimation is basing himself on the Evagrius that he received through St John Cassian, Roman Catholic spiritual theology took a different philosophical route, especially in the Middle Ages, from Orthodox spiritual theology. For example, in Roman Catholic theology grace is created, whereas the Orthodox have always taught that it is uncreated. This means that St John is obliged to explain his mystical experiences in ways which diverge considerably from the Orthodox tradition because he has to adhere to different theological concepts. Moreover, it might be possible that St John was obliged by the distortions of Western Scholastic theology to endure dark nights of the senses and soul in the manner he describes while this might not be necessary in the sounder Orthodox theological tradition. We don’t know. We don’t even know how anyone would demonstrate such a proposition. However, Orthodox Hesychast literature is much more a literature of light than Carmelite spirituality even though it certainly recognizes periods when the soul is tested by abandonment.

In general, we would think that an Orthodox Professor of Spiritual Theology would want to read St John of the Cross and consider how St John’s system is similar to and differs from the Hesychast systems of various Orthodox mystics, for example St Gregory of Sinai, but we would also think that St John’s books might confuse the Orthodox layman who didn’t understand the intricacies of both Orthodox and Roman Catholic spiritual theology.

Hope that helps.

–Orthodox Monk

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

The Orthodox Monk and the Law

We would like briefly to review the position of the Orthodox monk—any Orthodox monk—and the law.

Here we are interested in the Orthodox monk and the secular law. We assume for the sake of discussion that the Orthodox monk has no issues with his Orthodox ecclesiastical identity, for example with his status under Orthodox canon law.

Every Orthodox monk is somewhere. He is physically located somewhere. That somewhere has various laws.

Is the Orthodox monk above these laws?

He may think so. His abbot might think so.

The policeman might not think so. The judge might not think so. The local medical association might not think so. The various agencies of the government might not think so. The tax collector certainly will not think so. The lawyer for the other aggrieved party might know that the Orthodox monk is not above the law and might happily run up his fees as he prepares to file papers against the Orthodox monk and his monastery asking for damages and costs in the local court.

What is the situation?

This post was prompted by a comment on Sarah Palin 3 which went in part like this:

Wow. Lot's of big words and legal stipulations in the guise of being a thoughtful orthodox Christian. You should have been a lawyer. …

We have the impression that these words were directed towards our caveats in our posts to young Theodor, a Romanian who contacted us under the pseudonym Yahnony Mouse. Well the curious thing is, Rolandtione, Theodor the Romanian reappeared with a new pseudonym just at the time you made your comment. In fact he has newly trolled us under a variety of pseudonyms. He quoted Kierkegaard. We are proud to be a blogger trolled by people quoting Kierkegaard: we have a very tony blog.

But more seriously the upshot is that we have two problems: what to do about Theodor and what about the Orthodox monk and the law?

We would like to explain about all our big words and legal stipulations in small words that even Rolandtione can understand. Theodor understands the big words, as is evidenced by his reading Kierkegaard.

The Orthodox monk is not above the law.

He must obey the criminal laws of his country and local jurisdiction. He might think that the criminal laws are wrong but if he chooses to break them, he is going to pay the price prescribed by law—even the law of God. We all know the scandals that have ensued when someone has put on the habit and then done whatever he felt like— perhaps ending in suicide, perhaps ending in the penitentiary. If you can’t pay the time, then don’t do the crime. It also might be serious sin. The human criminal law is not necessarily the same as the law of God but there obviously is considerable overlap in Jud├Žo-Christian cultures.

In this regard, it might be pointed out that obedience is not a defence against a criminal action: ‘I cooked the books out of obedience, Your Honour,’ is not going to cut it in a human court.

Next, suppose that someone comes to the Orthodox monk’s monastery as a visitor and slips and falls. Breaks his ankle. The Orthodox monk is now about to find out about the law of negligence. It might be an expensive lesson.

Next, suppose that we, ‘Orthodox Monk’ counsel Theodor, whom we have never met and with whom we have only have had contact over the Internet, what to do. We might be wrong. Theodor might, however, listen to us. Let’s suppose he does. Let’s suppose he gets into serious trouble listening to us, perhaps even because he really didn’t understand what we said. So what? ‘Orthodox Monk’ shot his mouth off over the Internet. Everybody does it. Theodor should have listened to his father and mother.

It’s not that simple. ‘Orthodox Monk’ can find himself on the receiving end of a lawsuit. He might even be exposed to a criminal action for practising medicine without a license. Now Rolandtione might think that these things are trivial—after all talk is cheap on the Internet—but Orthodox Monk might not want legal and moral (Christian) responsibility for damaging Theodor. He might not want to go to jail for practising medicine without a license or to be liable for damages for what happens to Theodor when Theodor puts into practice what ‘Orthodox Monk’ says, as Theodor understands it.

But ‘Orthodox Monk’ is an anonymous blogger! How is anyone going to find him? “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary.” He will be found.

That’s why we haven’t replied to your latest emails and comments, Melvin Udall, Liam Foreal and so on. We told you all we could way back when and we don’t know a thing. If you have problems, see a professional.

Let’s suppose that the Orthodox monk’s monastery runs a business. Then the monastery is going to be subject to the laws governing the running of businesses, from employment law to labour law to commercial law to tax law to the law of warranty. If the Orthodox monk is in charge of the monastery business, he is going to have to keep the records prescribed by law, both accounting records and others. He also can’t shoot his mouth off on the Internet or to visitors to the monastery about the products he is selling without regard to the law and the truth. It will catch up to him, either civilly or administratively (e.g. the FDA).

Let’s suppose that the Orthodox monk has a monastery located in a United States jurisdiction. He applies for and gets 501(c)3 non-profit status. But that brings with it obligations as to what the Orthodox monk’s monastery can and cannot do. It imposes certain requirements for record keeping. Similarly in other jurisdictions.

Next, let’s suppose that the Orthodox monk is an abbot and people come to him. They decide to become his monks or nuns. It behoves the abbot to know the relevant laws and to learn the facts about the postulant made relevant by those laws. Is the person of age? Is he legally competent? Is he a citizen? Does he have the legal right of residence? Does he have debts? Does he owe taxes? Is he married? What does his wife think? What about the children? Is he wanted for anything? Is he on parole? Is he the subject of any court orders? Is he subject to an obligation for military service? Does he have any health issues that might create a legal liability for the monastery? Does he habitually break the law in ways that are going to affect the monastery? And so on and so forth. Due diligence.

Let’s suppose that in a burst of enthusiasm the wealthy novice gives all his possessions to the poor abbot. Let’s suppose that the abbot accepts. After a few years, the ardour cools and the novice who has since become a rasophore leaves. What then? The Abbot says, ‘You gave your goods to God.’ The monk says, ‘Where’s my lawyer?’ and goes to court.

For precisely this reason, in his Rule the 6th Century saint, Benedict of Nursia, counsels the abbot not to accept estates from postulants—the matter ends up in court, ‘as we have learned from experience’.

It also seems clear that in the Rule of Benedict the profession had a legal element; it wasn’t merely a promise to God but a contract legally binding for life in the context of the legal world of St Benedict. The abbot today must learn just what status monastic vows have in the jurisdiction in which his monastery is located. He has to understand the laws that govern such matters in his jurisdiction. The law may forbid him to take the monk or nun’s estate, preserving untouchable the monk or nun’s right to private property. It might not recognize the legal validity of a vow—i.e. it might enshrine the right of the monk or nun to leave the monastery any time they want for any reason they want, even for no reason at all. The law might even create a right for the monk or nun to seek fair compensation once they leave for the work they have provided to the monastery—you never know about such things until you check the relevant laws. The law might require special articles of incorporation of the monastery for it to have a proper legal identity.

Next, an Orthodox monastery normally has a cemetery. That might not be a straightforward matter in the local jurisdiction. Before founding the monastery, the founder would want to find out how the local planning authorities look at such a matter. There are also laws concerning how people are to be buried. Various elaborate embalming methods might be prescribed by law.

Additionally, the monastery site, including the buildings on it that the founder finds, might be subject to all kinds of zoning or even arch├Žological regulations. The founder has to find out.

Finally, let us suppose that the Orthodox monk still hasn’t figured out that he is subject to the human law. He goes off into the bush to a place where a saint once lived and sets up shop. He doesn’t bother about things like title to the land. The saint has appeared to him in a dream and called him.

So what happens? Someone comes around, sees the Orthodox monk deep in his devotions and calls the police. The police come. They have pistols slung on their hips. They say, ‘Sorry, the man to whom this land belongs has got an eviction order from the court and we’re obliged to evict you. Get your things together and get going.’ ‘But I had a vision that the saint called me here.’ ‘Get your things and get going before there’s trouble.’

In a few words, however spiritual you might be, don’t mess with the law. And however spiritual you are, it behoves you to find out which laws apply to you. If you’re really sensible and exposed—for example you have a large monastery—you will want to retain counsel to advise you in a continuing relationship as the monastery’s counsel. And we would also hazard the remark that obeying the law is also an aspect of Christian love.