Sunday, 30 January 2011

From Kung Furious to King Calm

Kung Furious is furious.  We’re pounding on the martial arts.  Here’s what he says in his comment on ‘A Lost Modern Man’ :
“...for reasons that would take too long to explain, should not practise the martial arts” [see ‘A Lost Modern Man’]
You also wrote the following in your ‘The Jesus Prayer 3’ post:
"Let's suppose that you're Orthodox. The first thing to do to begin the Jesus Prayer is to make a good confession to an Orthodox priest. [...] The first thing is your relationship to God. Here it is very important to make a very detailed confession to the priest concerning anything which might have disturbed your relationship to God. [...] Have you ever practised non-Christian forms of meditation and prayer, including hatha yoga, T’ai Chi Ch’uan and EVEN KARATE?"
What about judo or kickboxing or the mixed martial arts?
I know that the (eastern) martial arts are full of philosophical blabber and spiritual 'this' and spiritual 'that' but if someone tries to avoid these things and is only interested in the exercises, the kicking, punching, grappling and so on, then why shouldn't he practise a martial art?
Is it because of their aggressive nature? Or because of the "tribal ballet dances" (as I like to call the kata/taolu, the choreographed patterns of movements) and their strong emphasis on imagination? Or because of the breathing exercises?
Please explain. And if you know some stories and can give some examples, I would really like to "hear" them.
Thank you.
There are two separate issues about the martial arts here, Kung Furious.  Let’s take the Jesus Prayer first.  When we wrote ‘The Jesus Prayer 3’ we were concerned about having the aspirant to the practice of the Jesus Prayer in a serious, intensive way completely cleanse his or her soul from every non-Western, non-Christian experience they might have had so that the Jesus Prayer would operate in his or her soul as intended by the Fathers of the Orthodox Church.  We still think the advice holds.  If you want to practise the Jesus Prayer, cleanse your soul.
Now in the second case, we were faced with an email from someone that seemed to us to be under a great deal of nervous tension.  We wanted to calm him down.  Apart from the issue with the Jesus Prayer discussed in the previous paragraph, there is the fact that karate ‘hypes’ you up so that when you walk into a tavern your eyes immediately scan the room for potential attackers.  We have seen this with a sixth degree black belt.  Under the circumstances, we did not think that it was in the interest of A Lost Modern Man to have that sort of sensibility and nervous tension.
Well, what about T’ai Chi Ch’uan, aikido and so on?  They’re soft style; they shouldn’t create this sort of problem.  Well other issues arise, and the best thing to do when you are spiritually searching and need to calm your nervous system down is to stop all the martial arts, whatever the style.  You should be getting exercise, certainly, but of a sort that isn’t going to create this sort of nervous tension.
Our advice to A Lost Modern Man was based on our assessment that he needed to calm his nervous system down.  In the case where someone doesn’t have the nervous intensity that we sensed with A Lost Modern Man, the practice of a martial art as a sport would, with the permission of the confessor, be acceptable.
Moreover, in the case where someone is professionally obliged to practise the martial arts—for example, he is a member of the United States Secret Service—obviously he’s not going to stop.
The ‘tribal ballet’ aspect of the oriental martial arts doesn’t bother us.  It’s fun to watch, although we’re not much for the extreme forms where the fighters ‘fly’ several hundred meters through the air on wires.
We were wondering whether to entitle this post ‘From King Kong to King Calm’.  We also wondered if Theodor had shown up in a new incarnation.

John (Updated)

We have received several comments on our post ‘A Lost Modern Man’.  Let us take the comment by John first.  He has actually submitted two comments, the second one being just an afterthought.  We will discuss them together.  First of all, here are the comments:
I sympathize much with "A Lost Modern Man"; I have been 'Orthodox' all my conscious life, but only recently became interested in my faith after reading Crime and Punishment [by Fyodor Dostoevsky].
After this I have tried to learn what I can, from the absolute basics, from books at home and the internet. I got mixed up between genuine Orthodox and those who call themselves Orthodox [see the post], but I hope that I am over the worst of that now having read what the modern Elders have to say on the subject.
I am still left with the fact that I see conflicts between my daily life and what I read I should do everywhere. Not only with my secularist friends, but at home too.
I am only 17, still living with my parents (who are separated), and am very much still under their authority. From things like prayer and fasting (or lack thereof), to things said which seem to contradict the Orthodox teaching, and I don’t just mean things that are perhaps best referred to as controversial contemporary issues.
Still worse, I don’t feel like I can trust my priest and confessor for similar reasons, both on praxis and theoria, although to a lesser extent.
I seem to be judging just about everyone I know in some way or another.
I know that obedience and humility are very important. I have also read that I should not “correct” others, but is this always the case? What if they ask me about the same things? What about since what my parents do directly affects what I am able to do? Also, does the situation change at all after I become 18 or go to university?
Any thoughts at all would be much appreciated.
Forgive my ignorance.
I did not mean theoria, but I don't really know exactly how to say what I mean, although it has nothing to do with theoria. The idea of 'correctness' in Theology in a theoretical sense is what I mean I suppose.
There are a number of issues here.  Let’s first outline, as is our custom, what we think John to be saying.
1        John is a cradle Orthodox, but he really didn’t become interested in his Orthodoxy until he read Dostoevsky.
2        He got mixed up with non-canonical Orthodox but has escaped from their clutches (we aren’t being sarcastic; we’re just expressing the point in a direct way).
3        He feels out of joint with his secular friends and with his home life.  In particular there is a big tension between what he reads and what he sees around him.
4        He is 17 years old, living at home and under his parents’ authority.
5        His parents are espousing views and otherwise providing role models that contradict sound Orthodox teaching.
6        He feels he can’t trust his priest and confessor because of this contradiction between theory and practice.  Evidently what John means is that what he reads (theory) and what he sees his priest doing (practice) don’t agree, so he feels he can’t trust (or presumably even confide in) his priest.
7        He feels that with this situation he is judging everyone, which he realizes is not good (if it’s true).
8        He knows that obedience and humility are very important.
9        He’s read that he should not correct others.  Is this true in all cases?  What if they ask him?  (We think John means, what if others ask his opinion about these matters.)
10   What about the fact that his parents, who according to 2 above are not living or teaching an Orthodox life, directly influence what he is able to do?
11    What happens when he turns 18?
12    What happens when he goes to University (if he goes)?
13    He’s not sure if theoria is the right word.  What he means is ‘theological theory’.
John is at an age when in the West men and women begin to grow apart from their parents.  There is a legal, theological and psychological dimension to this.  First of all, so that we don’t repeat ourselves unnecessarily, John should read ‘Justin’.  Not all of that post will apply to him, but much of it will.  And since we don’t really want to discuss the specifically psychological aspects of the situation here, John should look carefully at that post concerning the psychological aspects.
From a legal point of view John will have to check what the law says in his jurisdiction about the legal age of majority.  It might be 18 but we are not legal experts, certainly not in John’s jurisdiction, and we cannot give legal advice.
Also John will have to check just what the legal age of majority implies.  It might imply, or might not, we don’t know, that John can leave his parents’ house at the legal age of majority.  It might also imply that his parents can turf him out of the house and quit feeding and clothing him, we don’t know.  This is something that John will have to check.  Where is he going to check?  The local police might tell him; there might be some sort of free legal aid service that he can drop by and ask (without telling anyone); there might be other similar sorts of agencies either private or state-run that he can drop by and ask.  This is merely to sort out his legal status.  We’re not suggesting that he undergo counselling.
Next, the Ten Commandments are clear that we should honour our father and mother.  Does that mean that we should sin because our parents are sinning?  No.  Does it mean John should correct his parents?  Under the circumstances that he has described, as we understand them, no.  However, because of the delicacy of the matter, it would be good to discuss these matters with a trusted confessor.
But John doesn’t trust his confessor.  What is he going to do?  Well, in extremis, he will keep his head down until he attains to the legal age of majority and then he will consult a confessor, wherever that confessor is located, that he trusts.  We imagine that once John goes to University he will encounter other Orthodox priests and, if he has prayed to Lord to give him a confessor, one whom he can trust without forcing himself.  It is very important to be intuitively comfortable with your confessor.  We can’t emphasize this strongly enough.  We have to trust the man.
We also imagine that his parents will not be monitoring John’s every footstep after he goes to University, so he should be able to travel a certain distance to visit with a confessor he thinks he can trust.  John isn’t positive that he will go to University; we would recommend that he go if he can, unless the trusted confessor tells him that he has to break off relations with his family and that implies that they won’t support him to go to University, etc., etc.—we can’t describe every possible situation that might develop.
Of course, in University John will encounter other temptations.
What John shouldn’t be doing is arguing with anyone about the Orthodox faith, especially his parents.  He should be praying for family and friends that he sees to be on the wrong road, without judging them—as John grows he will learn how weak he himself is and thus come to be more compassionate about his parents’ and family’s and friends’ weaknesses.
Under the circumstances, we suggest that John express his opinion when asked and only with the utmost circumspection.  There is nothing good that is going to come of conflict and argument.
The words praxis and theoria ordinarily mean contemplation (theoria), especially contemplation given supernaturally by the Holy Spirit, and the active life of keeping the commandments (praxis).  However, even Elders have used the words in a more commonsense way, where the words correspond to ‘theory’ and ‘practice’.  So there’s nothing wrong with John’s usage.
Incidentally John, the road to God is through keeping the Commandments.  Hence, what you should be doing is reading the Gospel, going to Church (without ostentation) and doing what the Church says.
If there are serious issues of sin which you cannot confess because you can’t trust your local priest, then you are going to have to not receive communion until you have made a good confession to a priest you can trust.  You can receive all the other mysteries, however; it is only Holy Communion that has a strict requirement for the Orthodox to be free of serious sin.  This is not to encourage people to attend the other mysteries in an unworthy way; it is to deal with the issue of a young man not being able to trust his local priest—until the time that he attains to the legal age of majority.
May God bless him.
John has posted the following comment below:
Dear Father(s):
Thank you for your time and advice: I shall try to do (and not do) as you have advised.
Despite what I said, I am actually quite close to my parents; they and my priest are all nice people, somewhat nicer than I am. Unfortunately that does not invalidate my previous remarks.
There is one thing I would like to clarify, though; I said I didn't feel like I could trust my confessor. I remember Saint Pimen said you shouldn't open your heart to someone you don't trust from your heart, or something to that effect, not having the book to hand: does this mean I should not confess to him at all? At the moment I do (occasionally), although you seem to indicate that perhaps I shouldn't.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that even if I'm not sure about what he does or says on a variety of matters, does that prevent me from confessing anything to him?
Writing this, I suppose it may seem that what I say appears to be contradictory. If this is the case, it is because such is the state of my life.
Pray for me.
In answer to your question, if you feel that you can confess to the priest without holding anything back because of your lack of trust for him, then there is no reason for you not to confess.  In other words, you have to judge just what it is that you have done, and just what the problem is with the priest.  Is he going to violate the confidentiality of the confessional?  Is he going to gossip about you?  Is he going to give you bad advice saying that sin is not sin and what is not sin is sin?  Is he going to bind you in conscience to a penance that creates serious problems?
There are a number of levels of confession.  I can confess that I have murdered my brother and presumably will do so before I’m hung even if I have my doubts about the trustworthiness of the confessor.  The only thing that matters is if his priestly orders are valid so that his prayers for forgiveness are valid so that I can depart with a clear conscience.
It’s another thing, though, to ask a confessor for guidance.  “I’m not getting along with my parents; they’re not providing a sound role model; and you’re not so great yourself.  What should I do with my life?”  Such a confession would be best reserved for a priest you can trust.
Orthodox Monk

Saturday, 8 January 2011

A Lost Modern Man

We have received an email asking our advice.  The sender has given us permission to discuss his email here on the blog.  Here is the email, slightly edited both to protect the identity of the sender and to correct a few typos:
I have been studying Orthodoxy for about a year now and am currently attending a certain Eastern Orthodox Church in a certain city here in the United States.   (This church belongs to a certain well-known jurisdiction.)
My question for you is how does one live the Gospel while still in the world?
Having come from an Evangelical and later an Atheist background all I know about ‘Christianity’ is that when you become a Christian your job is then to preach the Gospel.  This has never sat well with me because the more I study the more I realize that I know nothing.  So who am I to go out and share the Gospel when I am so weak and foolish?
I get confused because I like to read Philosophy and the Church Fathers. When I do this I feel like my mind is being pulled a thousand different directions. The one constant that I always come back to is that humanity is desperately hopeless without Jesus Christ.  The struggle I have is that I don’t know how to go about living. For example, If Jesus Christ is all that matters what am I doing just going about my life and struggling for the things of this world i.e. career, house, car, and so forth?
I feel like my life is being lived in vain. I also feel like I have so much work that needs to be done on my soul. I am not disciplined, my prayer life is poor at best and I don’t think I really understand the power of the incarnate Christ, God who became Man.
Having read quite of bit of Philosophy I see the world as completely opposed to the Gospel.  It appears that Modern Life does all it can to distract the soul.  From endless mindless TV/Radio shows to a vast Internet that can satisfy temporarily all the earthly pleasures.  To even the realization that Modern Life is a tier-based system of pleasure.  Those at the top tier get all the pleasures of the world whenever they want. Those at the bottom also have access to pleasures but work for the ones at the top.  It seems like the world we live in is centered around the divinity of man and in complete contrast to Christianity.
That being said its easy to point fingers. Even if the world is so terribly upside down, so is my soul. My soul is what God has entrusted to me. So my question is: How do I live the Gospel knowing that the world is? And knowing also that my soul is also upside down? How do I act? What are my primary concerns in life?
Thank you for your consideration.
A Lost Modern Man
There are a number of issues here.  First of all let’s run through what we know and don’t know.
A Lost Modern Man lives in a certain American city.  We happen to know that that city is characterized by a banal materialism.  ALMM doesn’t say what his age is but he seems a relatively young although mature man.  He also doesn’t say what his education is, although he seems quite intelligent.  He doesn’t say what his professional and economic situation is but we infer that he has a job which lets him get by and even consider obtaining material goods such as a house and a car.
ALMM started off Evangelical—whether by a youthful conversion or by family upbringing he doesn’t say.  Evidently disillusioned he left that for Atheism.  Evidently finding that Atheism didn’t give him the answers, he has been studying Orthodoxy for about a year.  He has attended an Orthodox Church in his city for at least part of that period.  It’s not clear to us if he attended other churches, whether Orthodox or not, before coming to rest, at least for the moment, in the particular Orthodox Church he is now attending.  From what we gather he has not been received into the Orthodox Church, since we are sure he would have mentioned that.
Now the first issue that ALMM raises is how he should live the Gospel.
The next issue he raises is his reading Philosophy and the Fathers of the Church, which makes his thoughts ricochet around his mind like pinballs.
However, and this is the next issue, he realizes that the only answer is Jesus Christ.
The next issue is that he feels he is living his life in vain.
The next issue is that on the basis of his readings in philosophy, ALMM feels that the world is completely opposed to the Gospel.
Moreover, the next issue is that modern life does all it can to distract the soul with temporary pleasures.
The next issue is that there is a tier-based social structure to the system of distracting pleasures.
The next issue is that this system of distracting pleasures is founded on the divinity of man.
The bottom line is that the world is upside down, just like ALMM’s soul.  What should he do?
We have spelled the issues out in a formal schematic way because we think we have to address each of them.
Let us start with ALMM’s position at the Orthodox Church he is attending.  There seems a problem here.  ALMM has been attending the particular Orthodox Church he has for a while and still has very fundamental issues of alienation from the society he lives in.  It doesn’t sound like the particular Church he is now attending (we know NOTHING about it) has been able to respond to him pastorally.  It may be that ALMM should be looking around at other CANONICAL Orthodox Churches, perhaps in the vicinity, perhaps—if he is able to continue his career elsewhere—a little further afield.
There are a couple of points we would like to make here.  The particular city that ALMM is living in is a banal, materialistic American city.  At the best of times, it’s not going to be a particularly spiritual place to live although there might be a community of interesting and accepting canonical Orthodox somewhere close to where ALMM lives.  It might be that ALMM can and should move elsewhere, to where he can find a more congenial place to live.  Of course this is assuming that he doesn’t have obligations that keep him where he is.  However, we’re not sure that moving to Manhattan would solve ALMM’s problems.  People are interesting in Manhattan, yes—perhaps too interesting.
Next, ALMM really should be undergoing a course of instruction, preferably one-on-one, in Orthodoxy.  This is not an intellectual endeavour the way they teach courses on Orthodoxy in University, but a spiritual preparation for Baptism.  Here we wonder if the ‘pastoral team’ at ALMM’s current church is really able to respond to ALMM’s needs.
Here what ALMM should understand is that entering the Orthodox Church is a mystagogy: a spiritual passage that leads from one spiritual place (where we are) to another spiritual place (membership in the Church, being a member of the Body of Christ).
Moreover, we would emphasize to ALMM that the proper means of being received into the Orthodox Church is Baptism.  This is not fanaticism on our part.  We can see that ALMM is out of joint with the society around him.  What he needs is a transforming experience that puts him into joint with Christ.  The only sure transforming experience to do this is Orthodox Baptism.
Indeed, if it is necessary, when it is time to enter the Church, if ALMM’s current Orthodox Church will not accept to receive him by Baptism, he should move on to another CANONICAL jurisdiction that will.  This is not to say that he has to live the rest of his life in that new jurisdiction, but that he should be received into the Orthodox Church by a canonical baptism in a canonical jurisdiction.  We would caution ALMM to avoid non-canonical jurisdictions in and around his city; they will destroy him.
It is very difficult for someone with a strong Evangelical background to convert to Orthodoxy.  Orthodoxy is a way of life, not an ideology.  And it is a completely different way of life from what someone would have lived among the Evangelicals.  We often encounter a situation where someone makes a physical conversion from Evangelical Christianity to Orthodoxy but persists in thinking like an Evangelical.  It is only Orthodox Baptism that has the power to change this.  Moreover, even with Baptism it can take years for the baptized person to slough off the Evangelical mind-set.
We would recommend that ALMM read our translation of the Gnostic Chapters of Diadochos of Photiki (look in the right margin at the topics).  St Diadochos spends much time discussing the actual results of Baptism on a person.  After a fashion, St Diadochos is analyzing the mystagogical path from where we are to where we should be.
Now how should ALMM live the Gospel?  When we are medical students, we learn; we do not heal, except perhaps under the direction of the Professor.  Moreover, when we are patients in the hospital we do not even learn; we merely follow the doctors’ instructions.  ALMM should be learning what the Orthodox Church teaches about God, Man and Society.  He should be learning, not teaching, and he should not feel obliged to proclaim the Gospel—except, if he wishes, to answer someone simply if they ask him what he believes.  But if the other party wishes to get into a debate, ALMM should simply say that he is learning and not in a position to debate issues.
Given the fact that reading Philosophy and the Fathers of the Church makes ALMM’s head spin, we would recommend that for the moment he stop reading Philosophy and restrict his readings in the Fathers of the Church to St John Chrysostom, in particular St John’s Commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew.
This is not to close off ALMM from serious thought but to stop his mind from being a pinball machine.  We suspect that ALMM is cut out for the study of theology but now is not the time.  Later, after he has become a member of the Orthodox Church, he can turn to a more systematic study of Philosophy and Theology.
However, it is far too early for ALMM to begin such a formal academic study of Philosophy and Theology; it would only damage him.  What ALMM needs is to hook up with someone who can ground him in Christ in the Orthodox Church, someone who will guide him spiritually to baptism and the practice of membership in the Orthodox Church, also giving him a strong basic Orthodox intellectual formation.  That Orthodox intellectual formation will be necessary when ALMM turns to the systematic study of Philosophy and Theology, to give him an inner criterion to separate the wheat from the chaff.
For similar reasons, we would recommend that ALMM lay off coffee, tea and whatever other stimulating beverages he drinks (including too much beer), and turn to drinking herbal teas.  Again, this is to get ALMM’s mind to slow down.
ALMM should do exercise, but for reasons that would take too long to explain, should not practice the martial arts (assuming that he does).
ALMM should make an effort to be polite to people.
Some temporary pleasures are acceptable to the Orthodox Church.  ALMM should have some recreation that is not inimical to the Gospel.  We think he knows what that means.
Next, ALMM raises issues about the structure of society.  St John Chrysostom challenged the Empress Eudocia concerning a widow’s vineyard that the Empress coveted and seized.  He was exiled by the Empress.  He was force-marched to death, dying in the Caucasus.  Both in his Commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew and in his own personal life, St John Chrysostom showed us the teaching of Christ concerning human society: what the Orthodox Church accepts as being legitimate structures of human society and what it condemns.
Concerning the issue as to whether the world is inimical to the Gospel, it will be important for ALMM, both as a thinker and as a person, to learn just what the Orthodox Church’s teaching is on the world.  Here we should point out that just as the Orthodox Church does not take the position that man is completely depraved by the sin of Adam, utterly incapable of doing good except through salvation by divine election—as the Calvinist strain of Evangelical Christianity teaches—so it is important for ALMM to learn that the Orthodox Church is more about transfiguring the world than condemning it utterly and irrevocably.  Here it might be useful for ALMM to read the Life of St. Seraphim of Sarov.
What is important for A Lost Modern Man to understand is that Orthodoxy is a way of life, a new way of seeing the world, a way of seeing the world that is transfigured by the grace of the Holy Spirit given in Baptism and Holy Communion, along with the other mysteries (sacraments) of the Church.  It behoves him to meet people who manifest that new life in their being and actions, and if he so chooses, to prepare himself to participate in that new life beginning with a canonical baptism.
May God bless him.