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17 November 2007

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Kevin McEvily

Kenosis, is it? A self-emptying to achieve a state of humility? I guess asceticism might work for that. Child rearing (if not simply child bearing) seems to work quite as well ... assuming the proper devotion, of course. Who's to say Father Seraphim's way is either harder or holier than yours?
Margaret's point and her examination well reflect the thought and conflict of that poet you and I have discussed before, Stavros. The strains of orthodoxy vibrate deeply enough to be heard amidst the harmony of many instruments. You and your wilderness mentor and your questioning friend all signal timely pauses to listen. Thanks for that.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces

---Gerard Manley Hopkins

Margaret

Stavros, thank you for taking the time to reply to my difficult questions. If you get enjoyment from it, so much the better. I have lots more difficult questions and they show no signs of abating, I'm afraid. It's an irritating inclination towards life that I have.

I've been busy and intend to reply properly to you when I have more time. I'm only at the stage of thinking that you have given me a Greek Orthodox answer which criticizes the Protestant tradition along the way (a bit unfairly, I think). Perhaps our positions do come down to doctrinal differences about the meaning of the phrase "justified by faith", but I am not sure the doctrinal differences have any practical import if both end up with Faith+Works. Wasn't it the case that the Reformation insistence on God's grace being freely given was a reaction to the Catholic sale of indulgence? I grew up in the Protestant tradition AND am very resistant to one sort of Christianity claiming superiority over another. It gets my hackles up, I'm afraid, in much the same way as the suggestion that one nation is better than another.

I also wondered, mischieviously, if you were contemplating a post on the primacy of the pope in relation to Orthodoxy? :)

In the meantime, Kevin makes me laugh. I feel as if I am having Gerard Manley Hopkins quoted back at me. My husband at this point will remind me that the only reason I know any poems at all by Gerard Manley Hopkins is because I studied him at school. He would be right as well, sadly. But I still love his poems though I have to read them aloud.

Stavros

Kev,

Yes, I must agree parenting can be quite a humbling experience although you have passed that trial and emerged victorious more than once. I am reminded of how humbling an experience it is on a daily basis.

No one is arguing that the path that Seraphim chose was "better," only harder and worthy of our respect, sort of like the path followed by your beloved poet. As always I am glad you take the time to listen. If I sound preachy, mea culpa.

Margaret,

Oh my, It seems like I came across like one trying to evangelize the heathens, nothing could be further from my intent. All I was trying to do was to give an Orthodox view of the important issues which you raised. I don't think I portrayed it as "we are right and everyone else is wrong." Christians should avoid internecine battles but I think discussing differing viewpoints is helpful if we want to understand each other better.

As for a post on the pope I would not venture into such a veritable minefield given that my friend Kevin, being a devout Catholic, might take exception. Kevin's people were not among those who took the soup during the famine and I would be out of line to offer them some at this late date, even though they were Orthodox before they became Catholics.

Kevin makes everyone laugh (that's one of the reasons we became friends) and he is a poet at heart, as are most Irishmen. I think both of you should know that you share the same profession which puts me at a significant disadvantage.

I look forward to your reply. Your inclination for asking hard questions, BTW, is not only endearing but is also something you have in common with those historical figures that have changed the world for the better.

Margaret

You are very kind to me.

I’m going to have to beg the same indulgence as Diogenes (I’ve really enjoyed reading his exchanges with Hermes though they make me feel very uneducated). This is a long reply, which begins with some personal stuff about my faith, or lack of it, so that you know where I am coming from.

I find it almost impossible to say “I believe” because somehow in my mind that means that all the work that needs to be done has been done, that the perimeters of my knowledge are closed. I find it impossible to align myself with one particular church either. I feel that I have so many doubts about essential beliefs of the Christian church that I cannot claim the name of a believer, though others insist on it for me. Picking and choosing bits that I like from different doctrinal backgrounds is what is not allowed but is also exactly what I would like to do. At the same time it seems inordinately arrogant to set myself up as some arbiter of what constitutes a true position – having picked the bits I like - when centuries of spiritual leaders and theologians have already described the boundaries of permissible belief. It seems equally arrogant to think that I should be able to discern the spirit breathing through a particular person or their writing, though I agree with you that this is what counts.

It is very likely that I am wrong. There is a passage in the beginning of “The Orthodox Way” (p16), though, that I find comforting and which I shall use as the justification of my reply to you. That passage says that it is by no means impossible for faith to coexist with doubt and that, for many of us, doubt will remain with us for all of our lives:

“Yet doubt does not in itself signify lack of faith. It may mean the opposite – that our faith is alive and growing. For faith implies not complacency but taking risks, not shutting ourselves of from the unknown but advancing boldly to meet it … As Thomas Merton rightly says, “Faith is a principle of questioning and struggle before it becomes a principle of certitude and peace.””

Some background which you may not know. I was brought up in the Anglican church – baptised and confirmed – and went to Sunday School and to an evangelical Anglican church after that. I had a “conversion” experience when I was eighteen and spent the next twenty years as a practising Anglican, attending church weekly and Bible study groups or fellowship groups, often in my own home. Usually the churches were evangelical Anglican churches – I used to go to John Stott’s church, All Soul’s, Langham Place, in London, for example, and St Aldate’s in Oxford. Both are very well-known for the quality of their teaching. I got very disillusioned for various reasons and stopped going to church in about 2000. I have hardly been since though recently I’ve enjoyed quiet contemplative evening services in a small rural church. It was not so much a question of losing my faith (I’ve always been a doubting Thomas anyway) but definitely losing faith in the church. I am a type very accurately described in Alan Jamieson’s book “A Churchless Faith: Faith Journeys Beyond the Churches”, a book that has helped me a lot to feel less of a leper (http://www.greenbelt.org.uk/index.php?p=303). I miss going to church a great deal.

I think Christians are required to try to be Christ-like. Being Christ-like is an attitude not a requirement to live his life. Jesus was not married and had no visible means of support, though I suppose he may have earned money from his carpentry. Our adult life, for most of us, is governed by our need to earn money to support ourselves, especially to feed, house and clothe ourselves. For those of us with families, our life is determined also by the responsibilities we have towards our partners and children to support them too, and our desire to meet their needs which arises out of our love for them. We cannot live the life that Jesus lived, most of us.

Christianity can appear as an instruction to be a co-dependent with low self esteem as we are instructed to turn and turn and turn the other cheek, and to measure ourselves against – and fail in relation to - a perfect role model. Faced with damaging behaviour, especially as a woman, I am told to go back for more (I don’t believe this). Measured against Jesus, I am never good enough.

However, if faith alone is sufficient (since no works will ever be sufficient) then I can at least at times feel accepted for who I am with all my deficiencies, weaknesses, bad habits and selfishness. That acceptance is not dependent on my good works but is a gift of grace from God. Faith must be necessary, I can see, in order to feel/know the grace. I cannot understand, however, that “faith” can ever be measured, certainly not by the good works of the believer, nor by the amount of time they have spent in prayer and contemplation. I do not believe that prayer and contemplation buy salvation or a place in another world.

At the same time it seems – to me - unconscionable that I would not continue to aspire to be like Christ (for all that I am bound to fail), and that the desire to do good works must be a product of that ambition, since Christ’s ministry consisted of helping others and not, on the whole, withdrawing from the world to pray. However, I have learnt that the desire to do good works has to be tempered by my responsibilities to my family which precede everything else and I refuse to believe that I or anybody else is required to put up with abuse or suffering “for Christ”. That is not to say that abuse and suffering might not be an inescapable part of someone’s life, but it is to say that, offered an alternative to abuse and/or suffering, they should take it. I am not persuaded by those who cut themselves off from their families, or claim that acceptance of suffering is Godly, or by those who drag their families through enormous travails in the name of Christianity. I suspect narcissism or masochism or schizoid personality disorders, not faith. I do not believe that good works buy salvation either.

Hope of salvation in another world motivate me or comfort me at all. It is this world I live in.

All of which comes down to faith being essential AND sufficient for salvation, and good works being the unavoidable product of faith (through transformation). I think, but I may well be wrong. I will try to read something that Fr Seraphim Rose has written and have re-read your comment several times. Right now I wonder how reading about the spiritual exercises of a monk who has cut himself off from his family (and probably denied his own sexuality) is going to help anybody in their personal faith, but since I gather he is very popular in Russia, I’ll reserve further judgement until I’ve read him.

I’m not frightened of disagreement and, again, agree with you that discussing different viewpoints is very helpful, and I feel extremely fortunate – as I’m sure do all who comment here – that my viewpoint is considered. I am interested to know what you think.

Margaret

Dimitrios, not Diogenes ...

Stavros

Margaret,

The more we talk the more I realize my own limitations. How can I, stumbling along the path of my own spiritual journey, advise you or anyone else for that matter. Not that long ago you had to straighten out this wayward Christian.

You once thanked me for introducing you to Markides and his two books. Books which I believe you got something out of. Obviously you have also been reading Kallistos Ware. Like you I am also reading and trying to discern what is important. In that respect we are not so different.

Despite my own many failures as a Christian I have been able to renew my faith because during the worst times in my life it was that faith that sustained me. All I had was faith; nothing else and no one else could help me. Like you I was raised in the Church, however during my youth the world consumed me totally and completely.

My journey back to the Church was helped along by the example of my own father, in particular, and by a few spiritual fathers along the way. If I have learned anything it is that we do not have to take that journey by ourselves. It is only within the body of the Church that we can find the answers. You see, there is only one Church, that founded by Christ. Christianity is not a philosophy or a set of rules one may follow on her own. It is a life which can only be lived in community, in the Church. That is why I constantly tell parents to get their children involved in their Church community. As parents we cannot give our children the gift of faith or grace, we can only prepare them in the Church to receive it. In order to find the answers we need only to consult the vast wealth of Apostolic teaching that is handed down to us. No need to reinvent the wheel or to transform Christianity in order to make it more palatable to the times. A "Churchless" faith is no faith at all, because it places us above the community of Christians that we must dwell in and draw strength from. In the Church you will find many who resemble pharisees, some who are only going through the motions, and many whom you will want to emulate and respect. We are all sinners and the Church is a hospital for sinners.

I think we have to be careful about discounting the role of monasticism. To ascribe psyschopathology to those that choose this path is I think to miss the point entirely of its purpose, consecrating one's life to God. Monks try to become living examples of life in Christ by banishing through obedience, fasting and toil, the pride of this world. Making it sound like they are not doing something "useful" is applying our questionable worldly perspective to something that is beyond its scope. The difference between monks and other Christians, is one of degree. Those who excel (some fail miserably) become our teachers in the spiritual life.

I have never heard or read anything in Christianity that recommends that we ignore the world we live in. In fact, it is the proving ground of the Christian. Yet if we ignore the Heavenly Kingdom because we cannot prove it exists or discover it with our senses, what exactly is the purpose of being a Christian? We can just as easily adopt the philosophy of Ayn Rand or worship the Gods of our choosing and live happily ever after in our small little world.

St Silhouan the Athonite said that the truth or falsity of one's path may be measured not by one's ascetism or spiritual gifts but the love of one's enemies. I thought of something you had written when I read this part: he did not mean "scornful pity; for him the compassion of a loving heart was an indication of the trueness of the Divine Path."

Margaret, I hope you accept my comments in the spirit that they are given. Despite your doubts, from what I know of your life you are striving to live a Christian one. Don't cut yourself from other Christians and don't stop asking questions or looking for the answers to those questions. Try reading "Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives and Counsels of the Contemporary Elders of Greece by Herman A Middleton and try reading this as well:

http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/fsr_84.aspx

Margaret

Stavros, I feel humbled by your reply, and chastened (not, I hasten to add, by anything you have written) by re-reading mean-spiritedness of some of the things I wrote in my comment.

I've read the articled you linked to which was interesting and did make me want to read more that Father Seraphim has written. You have given me lots to think about. I've only had a couple of hours so far, but that has been long enough for me to remember that I actually feel angry with my church, and its leader. Which, of course, means that I feel hurt. But you are right, of course, it is not the whole church that makes me feel like that since the church is made up of many different sorts of people at different stages of faith.

I do not agree with this statement, though: " A "Churchless" faith is no faith at all, because it places us above the community of Christians that we must dwell in and draw strength from", nor is that what the book I linked to argues. It is rather that people stop going to church not because they have lost their faith, but because they have lost faith in the church (I've said that already, I know, often because the church has little compassion for or tolerance of a spiritual struggle. Often in leaving the church for a time they grow in their faith. Paradoxical, but true, I think.

I understand the fear that in seeking a personal faith you set yourself above the Church, and agree that that is a possibility. It is, also, a theoretical possibility at least that the local church may be stuck in a stage of faith which is holding its members back. Is it better, then, to stay in the church, or to strike out alone, searching for something more? You are lucky, indeed, if all Orthodox churches are equally alive with the Spirit.

I asked Lola B if she'd like to go to the candlelit service with me on Sunday, anxious about her reply. She jumped at it, since it so happens that she has a project to do for Religious Education at school, which involves visiting a church, examining it, drawing it ... A happy coincidence.

Thank you for taking the time to address my questions. I think we all learn from each other, and I have much to learn. Sometimes it is the disagreements that we learn most from, but sometimes it is the encouraging words that spur us on. It is a privilege indeed to have one's thoughts attended to.

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