Monday, December 31, 2012

You cannot be too gentle

You cannot be too gentle, too kind.
Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other.
Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives.
All condemnation is from the devil.
Never condemn each other…
Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace.
Keep silent, refrain from judgment.
This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult, and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.

Keep me awake

In the dawn...
keep me awake, O Lord
keep me awake
I want to see You
and sing to You a hymn of praise and honor

Lord, our Good Shepherd,
may You find me
because I am lost and weak
but I really long for You and Your Love
Cleanse me O Lord and grant me Your mercy
to come near, closer to You

My sin is ever before me
and I am ashamed
Lord, heal me and restore me
so that I might gaze upon Your Beauty in awe
and Your faithfulness and deliverance
shall be in my heart and mouth

Lord, how great and trembling it is
to follow behind You
in the steps of Your Holy Feet
Joy! Joy! Joy!
even the way is narrow
and the thorn bushes along the side
but gazing upon Your Humility and Love,
strengthens us and comforts us

in the day light...
May Your blessing be upon us
teach us and guide us with Your commandments
to walk patiently in the rocky, stony roads

Lead me in the Beautiful path among the loving brothers and sisters,
Your rational flock
those through whom You also manifest Your Love
may we be united in one voice, mind and spirit
to glorify You, our Master!
and to love our neighbors

In the night...
let us rest and take shelter in You
because You are our Only Joy!

Keep me awake,
keep me awake O Lord,
that I may sing to You
in fervent Joy that comes from You!

You love me beyond me

The crown of meaning and beauty is You, O my Joy!
my Lord and Savior
how beautiful it is to pause and remember
How You love me beyond me

That Your heart rejoices upon everything good that You set on me
You gave that trust, that love, that joy
so pure as the glimmering stream of fountain
'Cling on me! Feed on me. I am Good Shepherd'
You call gently
Your embrace warms my soul, the sweetest of all
Everything is on Your mighty hands O Lord
Everything good is from You

Lord, it is trembling for me to draw so close to You
because Your beauty is so splendorous
You are the source of all
of all beauty and joy
Holy are You O God!

Lord, have mercy on Your little servant
which You have created from dust
and that You have given life and gift of being
I am sinful, full of disgrace
but Your mercy I plea and Your love I trust...
that You love me beyond me

May my life be totally for You and for Your Joy O Lord, nothing else
because I find nothing outside You
I can do nothing if not from Your mercy
There's no meaning but in Your bountiful blossom

Lead me, O Lord...
Save me, I am Yours
may I live for You and You alone, O Lord
in loving whom You love, the mankind and my neighbors
in rejoicing in Your joy
in weeping and caring for those who are in need
in taking care and being mindful of Your creation

in each step
in each breath
I am Yours

Bless, O Lord! Ameyn!
— Yudi Kristanto

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

He is Paradise

Thinking about Christmas, the nativity scene, an almost universally recognized symbol of the holiday, one that in recent times has provoked so much controversy, begging the question, where does private religion end and public indifference begin: I wondered to myself, how many people, Christian or not, even know where and when this Christmas tradition began? Once you’ve seen it—the straw-filled manger with baby, surrounded by adoring mother, standing-guard father, curious shepherds, and three visitors richly-robed and crowned—even without reading the bible, you know what’s going on, and unless you have a spoil-sport streak in you, you’re not likely to be offended by seeing a public display.

I was thinking about Francesco di Bernardone, the 12th-13th century Italian saint, who so greatly astonished his contemporaries, and me as well when I first read their accounts of him, that they believed he was, after Christ, the most perfect man who ever lived, a veritable second Jesus. His closest female disciple, Chiara Offreduccio, was likewise compared to the blessed virgin Mary. In one account, a devil who was being driven out of a possessed person, angrily revealed that St Francis and St Clare were purposely sent by God in His mercy to renew and refresh the Church, which had become so carnal and corrupt that if it didn’t repent and revive, He would’ve had to destroy it. I accepted all this uncritically.

From these same medieval records, we know that on a Christmas Eve of a certain year, Francesco had the idea to celebrate the midnight mass with a live representation of the Nativity of Christ. Out of this initial inspiration a tradition grew up, year after year, which eventually spread through the whole Church, changing to fit various cultures. Surprisingly, many groups of Christians that reject the traditions of Catholicism are avid promoters of the nativity scene, some of them using it to dislodge other traditions which they see as pagan superstition: they set out crèches instead of jack-o-lanterns at Halloween! But enough of this nonsense. For the disciple, Jesus is ‘a light that darkness cannot overpower.’

Thinking back to the stories about Francis and Clare, and of all the saints, as a new Christian my feeling for them was one of awe, and I held them in great reverence, as did my relatives and most other people around me. My faith was a religious faith, a kind of children’s version of Christianity, and imagination supplied what was lacking in personal experience. People can go through their entire lives never moving beyond this simple faith, and who’s to say it’s wrong? But for me, that was not enough, though at the time I little knew how insufficient it really was. Growing up in Christ opens your eyes to see the saints in a new way. It doesn’t diminish their stature. It magnifies it, because they cease being images; they come alive.

And coming alive, they invite you into their company, where no one is even thinking of being religious or of becoming saints. Why not? Because where they are is Paradise. There is no need of religion there, because men see God and speak with Him face to face. Why is where they are Paradise? Because they are in Christ, and they know it, and He is Paradise, and that is all that they know. When you follow them as they follow Him, very soon that is all that you know too. Nothing that you ever did before as a religious Christian goes away or is abandoned. You just grow up. Grow up into the stature of Christ. Francesco’s stigmata don’t cease being wonderful; they are just no longer a source of wonder: only Christ is.

Christ says, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ This is not mere rhetoric or a pious promissory redeemable in heavenly assets. Life in Christ never can be because it never was or will be ‘pie in the sky,’ but it is always here, always today, always yes, because of His word, ‘Behold, I am with you till the end of the age.’ If we cannot wrap our minds around concepts like the Holy Trinity, we can at least experience the effects it has on us. I must say ‘it’ because no human language contains the fourth person pronoun comprised of the other three, which is singular and plural, masculine and feminine in the same iteration. ‘All who have been baptised into Christ have put on Christ.’ Incomparable to each other or to anyone, they are ‘saints.’

We are entering into the time beyond times, the great kairós of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Why let ourselves look on uncomprehending? Why not enter into the Nativity of the Son and Word of God, as Francesco of Assisi shows us? The pre-eternal Divine Nature reveals Himself as a new born child, and we can migrate with the magi following the star that stops and shines above where the Child lies. We have not and never come too late. The star still shines. The Child still is born, and He lives, and His birth of a virgin womb renews, recreates all human nature, and soon, even the whole material universe. ‘The ox and the ass know their Master’s crib.’ What about us? What about you? Christ is born! Let us glorify!
Χριστός Γεννάται, Δοξάσατε!

Monday, December 24, 2012

What shall we offer Him?

Every year I am deeply moved by the hymns of Christ’s Nativity composed by my name day saint, Romanós the Melodist. Somehow in their simplicity of lyric and melody they capture a side of Christmas that escapes the notice of our culture. In the Western world, the famous short hymn Silent Night has a similar effect of reducing everyone who hears it to the level of the simple awe of the shepherds of Bethlehem. Yet, Today the Virgin, maybe because of its poetry and the details so carefully woven together with tender irony, surpasses all other hymns in conveying both what it was like in time, and what it is like in eternity—the Word became man and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth.

Η Παρθένος σήμερον, τον προαιώνιον Λόγον,
εν σπηλαίω έρχεται, αποτεκείν απορρήτως.
Χόρευε, η οικουμένη ακουτισθείσα,
δόξασον, μετά Αγγέλων και των ποιμένων,
βουληθέντα εποφθήναι, Παιδίον νέον,
τον προ αιώνων Θεόν.

Today the Virgin comes to the cave
to ineffably give birth to the Word before all worlds.
Dance, O universe, upon hearing this,
and with the angels and the shepherds glorify Him
who freely willed to become a new Child,
the God before all ages.

Η παρθένος σήμερον, τον υπερούσιον τίκτει
και η γη το σπήλαιον τω απροσίτω προσάγει,
Άγγελοι μετά ποιμένων δοξολογούσι
Μάγοι δε μετά αστέρων οδοιπορούσι,

δι’ ημάς γαρ εγεννήθη Παιδίον νέον
ο προ αιώνων Θεός.

Today, the Virgin bears the One beyond being,
and the earth offers the cave
to the Unapproachable.

Angels with shepherds glorify Him.
Magi migrate to Him by a star.
For unto us is born a new Child,
the God before all ages.

(Sigh!) The English translations, no matter which ones you look at, don’t really convey the sense of the original, though they come close. Especially the “Dance, O universe” which translates, Χόρευε, η οικουμένη, Chóreve i ikouméni. That’s what it means!

I’ve been thinking about these hymns, and also this prayer which follows, for the last few days…

What shall we offer You, O Christ,
Who for our sakes have appeared on earth as a man?
Every creature made by You offers You thanks:
the Angels offer a hymn; the heavens, a star;
the Wise Men, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder;
the earth, its cave; the wilderness, a manger,
and we offer You a virgin Mother!
O Pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!

And I’ve been thinking about the ikons. We know that we’re the living ikons of the Lord Jesus Christ, made in His image, broken by sin but restored by His saving grace. We know that He says things to us like, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes Me,” and “Whatsoever you do to the least of My brethren, that you do unto Me.” So, the meaning of ikons is far more than just the religious pictures you see in an Orthodox home or church. Abba Anthony (one of the Desert Fathers) says, “Our life and our death is with our neighbor. If we gain our brother we have gained God, but if we scandalise our brother, we have sinned against Christ.”

We know that the Bible is the greatest ikon of all, in that it is the verbal ikon of the Word of God, and that it should be treated with all reverence—venerated, honored, read and obeyed as the Source of everything we can possibly know about God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and about His ikonomía, His “plan of salvation,” as the only divine scripture on earth. Just as we don’t casually throw it around, or use it as a place mat or door stop, but rather always give it the place of honor, kissing it and holding it respectfully and lovingly, for His sake Whose Gospel it contains, so we also treat our fellow man. We don’t treat him casually, or as a means to an end, but respect him as one to whom Christ comes, for whom Christ died, and through whom Christ comes to us.

Back to the prayer quoted above, “What shall we offer You, O Christ,
Who for our sakes have appeared on earth as a man?”

Since Christ is now among us, in us as His living ikons, how can we offer, not only what shall we offer, to Him?

This question posed itself to me, as I was thinking of Christmas gifts. The hymns and prayers of Christmas describe various beings (not just humans, but beings) offering gifts to Christ at His becoming a “new Child.” Hypersomatic beings (angels) offered “hymns.” Outer space (the heavens) offered “a star,” (quite possibly a supernova). The educated (wise men) offered “gifts,” (we know what they were—gold, frankincense, and myrrh). The working class (shepherds) offered “wonder”—what else did they have? The planet earth offered a cave (and as at the beginning, so at the end, in a rich man’s unused tomb). The wilderness offered a manger (so that the animals, too, could get a good look at their Creator). And finally, the human race, in the shape of her own willingness to risk everything she had ever known and every happiness she ever hoped for, a young virgin as His Mother.

Where does that leave us, who have come two thousand years too late?

No, it’s never too late. We can give to each other everything that we would give to Christ personally. He is here with us, after all! Yes, it’s presents at Christmas. The more of ourselves, the better. It’s a smile and a hug in loneliness, a kind word in sorrow. It’s a helping hand to one who needs it, to one who needs what you have but don’t need. “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry” (Luke 3:11 NIV). This is another facet of the theology of ikons. This is why ikons have come into existence—because the invisible, incomprehensible, eternal God has freely willed to become… one of us.

Do we sit out on a country hillside at night, enjoying the canopy of stars, looking for and trying to commune with the God of all? Wait! Perhaps He is there, sitting beside us, looking up at the stars too, that He created, because they are beautiful, and waiting…
for us to notice Him.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Saturday, December 22, 2012


There are no hidden meanings in our letters besides what you can read for yourselves and understand.
2 Corinthians 1:13

I have always been amazed whenever I read this line at the beginning of the apostle Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth. Right here and in no uncertain terms we have a declaration by one of the writers included in the New Testament that the ordinary Christian can be confident of understanding the simple, saving message of the Word of God. Am I not stretching things a bit? After all, maybe the apostle was only talking about his writings, his letters. Maybe he was even talking only about this particular letter. No, he uses the plural, so that means all of his letters. Too bad we don’t have all of them, but what the Lord wanted us to have, we have.

And he says ‘our letters,’ as well. Doesn’t that mean letters written by the other apostles? And if that is true of the letters, might it not be true of the gospels? Well, they hadn’t been put down in writing yet: they were still being lived. Even so, I get the impression that it was a priority for the first generation of the Church to make sure that whatever was written down was written clearly, concisely, truthfully, simply and directly, in an idiom that the audience would have no trouble understanding. It was, I believe, the same spirit that imbued the reformers of the Church of England to provide scriptures and liturgies in a tongue ‘understanded by the people.’

This primitive protocol of the first generations of the Church was, I think, preserved for many centuries, but as society underwent decay and suffered the barbarian invasions, language changed, native intelligence was stifled, yet for those who could still read and think for themselves the same clear, clean light of the Word of God was still accessible and proved that ‘there are no hidden meanings in [the New Testament scriptures] besides what you can read for yourselves and understand.’

This precious deposit was guarded zealously by the early Church, and what escaped, or was expelled, from the community of faith was taken up and further mutilated by those who had religious principalities to build and fake mysteries to hawk, like frontier potion peddlers. All of this was so obvious even in the days of the holy apostles that they were warning us about people like this right from the beginning. Human nature will always produce spiritual counterfeits. Anything is preferable to the Truth, because Truth is not for sale, it’s free. But lies command a high price: they’re always in demand.

As it was in former times, so it is still today. Just as the attack was pressed home against the Church of the holy apostles, so it is directed against the Church of Christ today.

Be careful, brethren, of objectifying the Church as the ‘organized church’ and looking for esoteric truths. There are no esoteric truths in Christ that can be passed down from master to disciple as in the non-Christian religions, or even as in some forms of Judaism. Whatever makes the claim to be that is patently false. But I didn't say there are no esoteric truths in Christ, just none that can be passed down or handed over: that is what tradition is, and tradition is only the form that can be filled with faith, our personal faith, and through which we can commingle with other disciples of Christ.

Yes, esoteric truths there are, actually, not plural, truths, but only singular, Truth. Esoteric, hidden Truth in Christ there is, but it cannot be described or handed over to anyone, so you will not find authentic esoteric teachings among the church fathers. You may find one or two here or there who have come down to us through the memory of the Church because of their holding some idea that earned them notoriety. But these thoughts will not prove to be fertile soil for the life of the Spirit, only various kinds of poorly drained swampland for the delectation of the superstitious, or else hard, unwaterable clay from which a new man cannot be made, but only slept on by the tough-minded.

Stay close, always, to the words of holy and divine scripture, and follow behind the fathers and mothers of antiquity who followed Christ not with their heads alone but with their feet. There is no ‘formal church’ that became irreversibly corrupt most likely in the first century, either discovered by historical scholarship, or speculated into existence by idle and curious intellects. The very word of Jesus prevents this, for He said that the very gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, and who can imagine either, that the divine Bridegroom, the Nymphios, would hand over his turtledove to the Beast. Whatever the institutional Church looks like outwardly through its activities, the true Church still lives within that structure.

Back to the esoteric. I said there is esoteric Truth, and that there is only One. And I want to qualify that statement just once by telling you that it is the Cross.

One thing that a Christian, that is, a follower of Jesus, can always rely on, no matter what church he belongs to or attends. You cannot go wrong, ever, if you imitate Christ, and do only those things you see Him doing in the gospels. The visible and institutional Church can be falling away around you, but with your eyes fast focused on Jesus, you would scarcely notice. What you would see, however, is what Jesus is doing right now to remedy the situation, and you, if you are following Him, are privileged to share with Him the work that He, not you, sets yourself to do.

Thinking His thoughts, loving as He loves, redeeming the time, welcoming the stranger, overlooking offenses, healing the sick, seeing clearly so that the blind around you may also see, suffering the humiliation of your own human weaknesses without abandoning the work or the discipline of the Son of God, keeping your heart free from malice: These are the worthy tasks, the fulfilling of the only commandment, that erases sin in both the Church and in yourself, because it is letting the fire of Christ burn all unrighteousness from the inside out, leaving only what He has recreated in you and in the Church—that is as close as I can get to pointing to what you will never learn from books, only from following the Son of God, walking with Him the way of the Cross.

So, brethren, as I always say, ‘Go with God.’


There is no question that the Bible, called the ‘verbal ikon’ of the Word of God, is without equal as the source of our knowledge about the nature of God the Holy Triad and the salvation that is open to all. There would be no Church fathers, no worship or doctrine, no ikons, in short, no knowledge of Christ, or of our deliverance from sin and death through Him, without the Bible.

It is folly when some church authorities insist that the Bible is ‘the Church’s book’ and that only the Church can interpret it, meaning only their church. The same is true of those who say, ‘The Church was there before the Bible was, and that’s why the Church owns it and uniquely can understand it aright.’

We find that Mary the Theotokos (God-bearer) gave birth to Christ (God) in the flesh. Do we ever find her claiming to own Him, or to be the only one who understood Him aright? Yet, in time, she did precede Him. So did John the honorable forerunner and prophet. Yet he also said, ‘He that comes after me is greater than I.’

In the same way, though the Church, even considered institutionally, though it may have preceded, in time, the compilation of the books contained in the volume of the Bible, and though some members of it (the holy apostles and evangelists) wrote the parts of it called the New Testament, cannot consider itself the ‘owner’ of the Bible, nor its unique interpreter.

Instead, that which the Church ‘gave birth to,’ the Holy Scriptures, has come through her, the Church, as Christ the Divine Logos came through the Virgin Mary, to be her Lord, her Master, her only Teacher, her Rabbi, the Messiah. This proves the utter primacy given to the written Word of God, which is the original ikon of Christ the Divine Logos (Word of God), within the Church.

God is One, revealed to us as the Holy Triad of Father, Son and Spirit. The Second Person of the Holy Triad is Jesus Christ. He is the Word of God. The Bible is the ikon in human language of the Word that He is, written and therefore interpreted by the Third Person of the Holy Triad, who is the Spirit.

That Spirit can and does live in us, the people of God, sanctifying us and setting us apart as the New Israel of God. It is He, the Holy Spirit, who interprets the Bible for us and in us, making us participants in the acts of God described there.

Without the Holy Spirit’s unique work in us, the Bible would be only a book, maybe even the greatest book, but still only a book. The Church includes everyone in whom that Spirit lives, and to the extent that we follow the leading of that Divine and Holy Advocate (Paráklitos), to that extent we understand the Bible, the written ikon, aright, we have correct teaching (Orthodoxía), and we live rightly (Orthopraxía). All this comes from the Holy Scriptures.

What are the other holy ikons? Why do we encounter the Word of God in them as we encounter Him in the Bible, and how?

Ikons that are pictures painted on canvas or wood are written, using pigments and forms, and can never be anything except that which conforms to the Word of God as expressed in the Bible, and in the verifiable history of the Church.

The history of the Church extends from our first parents Adam and Eve, down to the people of God living at this present moment in chrónos time. Anything beyond that, even if it is painted in an ikonographic style can never be an ikon, only a religious picture, because it cannot be trusted.

That’s the first point. Ikons are pictures that must conform to what is literally revealed in the Holy Scriptures, or in verifiable history. Their validity as a ‘Word-event’ hinges on this fact. But ikons are still only pictures, unless the Holy Spirit who authored them in the mind and hands of the ikonographer gives them life, drawing us into the events they portray.

This is a matter of faith, not superstition. The superstitious receive nothing for their trouble in kissing and venerating ikons, leaving flowers, lighting candles, in front of them, even praying before them, if they pray not to the Heavenly God, but to the images themselves.

Thus, the second point about ikons is that it is only by the work of the Holy Spirit, their divine Author, that we can be drawn into the eternal reality of the events portrayed in them—eternal reality because before God all things are present. That’s why some people describe ikons as ‘windows to Heaven.’

In the Jewish Passover, the participants are told that it is not with their ancestors who came out of Egypt that the covenant was made, but with them, and that it is not their forefathers but they themselves whom YHWH delivered from slavery to pharaoh. This is straight out of the Bible.

In the same way, in the Orthodox Christian Pascha, the participants are told that it is we, the people of today, who have witnessed the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ is directly experienced by those living today, through the work of the Spirit of God, if they respond to His invitation.

These two examples underscore the idea that the Holy Spirit makes Scripture come alive, and through faith inserts us into the biblical narratives. The historical gap is bridged by faith when one is lifted out of the present and placed into the Bible. The biblical world and the contemporary world run together.

This is one Orthodox understanding of how we approach the Holy Scriptures, and how we approach the holy ikons. Yet, in spite of having the Bible and the ikons, we are taught ‘not to have any image of God in our minds as we approach Him in prayer,’ but to present ourselves, imageless, before Him as we are, so that we can receive Him, the King of all, solely as He is.

Giving us this kind of instruction, it sometimes makes me wonder why the Church got stuck on ikons in the first place, but I think biblical illiteracy had something to do with it. In an odd sort of way, I think sometimes that people today are drawn to our ikons for the same reason—they've given up ‘living in the Word of God’ (the Bible), and are trying to fill the void created by their biblical illiteracy.

As Luther said, ‘Anyone not ceaselessly busy with the Word of God must become corrupt,’ is still the hard and fast truth, for Orthodox Christians, and for everyone. Outside of that, all our works and thoughts lead us only to bondage and vanity.


You must live your whole life according to the Christ you have received—Jesus the Lord; you must be rooted in Him and built on Him and held firm by the faith you have been taught, and full of thanksgiving. Make sure no one traps you and deprives you of your freedom by some secondhand, empty, rational philosophy based on the principles of this world instead of on Christ.
Colossians 2:6-8 Jerusalem Bible

Do not be taken in by people who like grovelling to angels and worshipping them; people like that are always going on about some vision they have had, inflating themselves to a false importance with their worldly outlook.
Colossians 2:18 JB

Mysticism, what is it? People who are called mystical seem to be a kind of religious elite, whether Christian or non-Christian. They seem to be more in touch with God than the rest of us. Some of them actually claim to be. Some even claim that they are one with God. Can the term ‘mysticism’ even have a legitimate meaning anymore, especially for Christians, when all this confusion abounds?

Perhaps the answer is yes. To grasp the true meaning of Christian mysticism, one must study the earliest Church mystics carefully, for it is in the light of their experience that later deviations can be properly evaluated. There were some aberrations among even them, of course, but nothing to be compared with the false and impious mixtures found in Europe during the Middle Ages.

The mystics of the early Church included the Church Fathers, for in those days the theologians were among the most spiritual of Christians, and the phenomena of mystical life was evident in all social strata—clergy, monastics, and ordinary believers of all classes.

Visions were practically non-existent in the mystical life of the early Church. Distractions to prayer, whether voluntary or involuntary, were deplored and dismissed whenever possible. Visions and ecstasies were considered to be involuntary distractions to prayer. Those very experiences which later Christian ‘mystics’ sought after and prized so highly were considered by the earlier Christians as little more than nuisances to be suspiciously examined and barely tolerated.

Contemplation consisted not merely in negation and renunciation (as in later Roman Catholicism), but in a deifying union with God’s Spirit in an experience of spiritual illumination after all intellectual activity had ceased. This deification, or in Greek, théosis, had many definite and practical applications in everyday life. ‘If it were possible for me to find a leper,’ said Abba Agathon, ‘and to give him my body and to take his, I would gladly do it, for this is perfect love.’ Such was the true nature of théosis, or deification.

All of the mystics of the early Church believed that the supreme spiritual experience would be to see the Divine and Uncreated Light, which was identical to what the Jews call the Shekhináh—it is the light witnessed by the three disciples which surrounded Jesus on Mount Tabor at His Metamórphosis. Because “God is light” (1 John 1:5), the experience of His energies was said to take the form of light. This is not mere created light, but the Light of the Godhead Itself. Even though this Light is not a sensible or material light, it can be seen by a man whose senses as well as his soul have undergone a metamorphosis of their own.

The Platonic view of man as a soul imprisoned in a body was for a time incorporated into Christian thought, through the writings of Evagrios of Pontus, and Origen of Alexandria, but it was later rejected in favor of the Hebraic view of man as an animated body. The difference between considering man as an animated body (like Adam for whom God first created a body out of dust and then breathed life into him) or an imprisoned soul (as taught by the Greek philosophers who followed Plato) has a subtle but important influence on one's understanding of redemption, and even of prayer.

Abba Makarios of Egypt in his homilies reestablished the more biblical emphasis on the whole man. Whereas the Greek philosophical view made prayer an activity of the mind and the intellect, Hebrew tradition made prayer a function of the whole man—mind, emotions, will, and body. Whereas Evagrios and Origen used the word mind, Makarios used the word heart, which was not only more biblical but also more in keeping with a true understanding of the human being.

Bishop Basil of Καισάρεια/Kaisáreia wrote…

Silence is the beginning of the purification of the soul. A mind undistracted by external things and not dispersed through the senses among worldly things, returns to itself. As the Lord dwells not in temples built by human hands, neither does He dwell in any imaginings or mental structures, fantasies which present themselves to the attention and surround the corrupt soul like a wall, so that it is powerless to look at the Truth directly, but continues to cling to such things as mirrors and fortune-telling.

It seems to me that much of the so-called mysticism we find in the world and, alas, in the Church today may be of the type warned against by the apostle Paul, grovelling to angels and worshipping them,’ and by Basil the Great, ‘powerless to look at the Truth directly,’ and is a reversion to the superstitious attitudes of the Middle Ages, which for both Paul and Basil were far in the future, but for us a lingering and seductive past.

‘Mirrors and fortune-telling’ are Basil's words for what to us may take slightly different forms, cloaked under a pious disguise, but it is the same spiritual cheat nonetheless.

So, what is mysticism, then? Is it anything other than what happens to us when we give all for all, abandoning ourselves gladly to the Lord our God, our Savior, our Brother, our Lover and greatest Friend?

As the bride asks in the Song of Solomon, ‘Tell me then, You whom my heart loves: Where will You lead Your flock to graze, where will You rest it at noon? That I may no more wander like a vagabond beside the flocks of Your companions,’ so comes the answer, ‘If you do not know this, O loveliest of women, follow the tracks of the flock, and take your kids to graze close by the shepherds’ tents.’ (Song of Solomon 1:7-8 JB)

Originally posted as And what is mysticism? on July 6, 2009.

Friday, December 21, 2012


Brethren, as you know, I am just an ordinary Christian, a simple follower of Jesus, with no formal education in ‘theology’ or in ‘biblical criticism.’ I’ve said it often enough, and so I believe, that theology isn’t learned in schools, nor is it possible to criticize the Bible. Sometimes I write things, just like the foregoing, that make me sound very dogmatic, very doctrinaire—some of you even think that I am denominationally biased, favoring one church over another, as if there were such a thing as ‘churches.’

If you know me well, as some of you do, you know very well that I am not being dogmatic or even denominational, that my words may seem pontificating, but I laugh at them, knowing they are the ravings of a fool who knows only the words of Jesus and is merely trying to accept them, accept Him, fully, letting you see his folly meanwhile, to elicit your prayers. But I don’t laugh only at myself. I laugh at you too, and often I seem to laugh all of us to scorn, nonetheless writing what I believe is true.

I really do believe that the Bible cannot be understood outside the Church, nor dogma grasped outside of worship, yet I write on subjects as if I knew something. As I’ve said often enough, I don’t witness for the Church, I witness for Christ, and He witnesses for the Church. I assume that anyone who studies the Bible wants to have faith, wants to hear the call of Jesus Christ, wants to be inside the Church, just as I do. As for dogma, well, I have done nothing if not invited everyone I meet repeatedly to worship.

What happens, though, when confronted with people who think they know the Bible and can use it as a weapon against others, even as a weapon against the Church? Personally, I am used to being attacked, used to being used and pillaged, used to being doubted, used to being suspected and slandered, used to being mocked, scorned, and discarded, used to finding myself having to start over from scratch, used to being eliminated from society.

Do you think I am speaking of Romanós? I am not; I am speaking of the Church. But then again, what does it mean if one’s life follows closely on the heels of these complaints? Could it mean that one is perhaps a member of the Church after all? Yet, we go to church and see all the marvelous things, the worship, the social and religious activity, the wonderful camaraderie of, well, some of the people there. Not everyone, it seems, fits in, but the Church makes room for us all, even us misfits.

We see the world around us with a sort of double vision—what it looks like, and what it really is. This double vision applies to how we see other people, and it even applies to how we see the Church. This is where faith either kicks in, or fails us—or should I say, where our faith fails us? Who can be strong enough to live in a world where, though the Truth be known, those who say they know the Truth cannot even be relied on to love those they see, as proof that they love Him who is Unseen?

How brittle are our lives to be so easily shattered! As I come to the end of all things—yes, the end of all that is merely human, all that is breakable, all that fails, yes, especially me—before I can welcome the One who makes all things new, who rewrites the broken ikons, refashions the fallen Adam in the image of the Eternal Man, even in His birth defeating hell and death because He fills all things—before I can welcome Him and hear the Message, ‘and on earth peace, and to humanity the favor of God’

What must I do but confess that I am a failed human and deserve the rebuke of all, that I have not kept up my end of the bargain—yes, the bargain, for what better buy was there ever to be had than the one whereby the Son of Man purchased me for myself with His own Blood, to set me free? All my ravings and babble, worthless, all my thoughts, nothingness, and yet I stand as one who thinks himself sane in a world that has gone mad, but nothing and no one is sane in this mad world, only He.

in a Christmasless land, I approach this bright feast of the Church—yes, only the Church celebrates it, while the world indulges itself in it—as one who has not even begun making an effort to live the good life, the only life worth living, as one who knows he doesn’t deserve to draw near.

Today the Virgin gives birth to Him who is above all being, and the earth offers a cave to Him whom no one can approach. Angels with shepherds give glory, and magi migrate with a star. For to us there is born a little Child who is God before the ages.

Shameless I come before Him empty-handed. Lord, have mercy on your servants who do not know You, who do Your will in spite of themselves, and on my enemy, on my worst enemy of all, on myself. In Your mercy make me worthy to say with the saints, ‘Christ is born! Glorify Him!’

Thursday, December 20, 2012

ο Θεανθρωπος - The God-Man

Jesus, our Saviour, the God-Man…

We confess one and the same individual as perfect God and perfect Man.
He is God the Word Which was flesh.

For if He was not flesh, why was Mary chosen?
And if He is not God, whom does Gabriel call Lord?

If He was not flesh, who was laid in a manger?
And if He is not God, whom did the angels who came down from heaven glorify?

If He was not flesh, who was wrapped in swaddling clothes?
And if He is not God, in whose honor did the star appear?

If He was not flesh, whom did Simeon hold in his arms?
And if He is not God, to whom did Simeon say, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace”?

If He was not flesh, whom did Joseph take when he fled into Egypt?
And if He is not God, who fulfilled the prophecy, “Out of Egypt have I called my Son”?

If He was not flesh, whom did John baptize?
And if He is not God, to whom the the Father say, “This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased”?

If He was not flesh, who hungered in the desert?
And if He is not God, unto whom did the angels come and minister?

If He was not flesh, who was invited to the marriage in Cana of Galilee?
And if He is not God, who turned the water into wine?

If He was not flesh, who took the loaves in the desert?
And if He is not God, who fed the five thousand men and their women and children with five loaves and two fish?

If He was not flesh, who slept in the ship?
And if He is not God, who rebuked the waves and the sea?

If He was not flesh, with whom did Simon the Pharisee sit at dinner?
And if He is not God, who forgave the sins of the harlot?

If He was not flesh, who wore a man's garment?
And if He is not God, who healed the woman with an issue of blood when she touched His garment?

If He was not flesh, who spat on the ground and made clay?
And if He is not God, who gave sight to the eyes of the blind man with that clay?

If He was not flesh, who wept at Lazarus’ tomb?
And if He is not God, who commanded him to come forth out of the grave four days after his death?

If He was not flesh, whom did the Jews arrest in the garden?
And if He is not God, who cast them to the ground with the words, “I am He”?

If He was not flesh, who was judged before Pilate? And if He is not God, who frightened Pilate's wife in a dream?

If He was not flesh, whose garments were stripped from Him and parted by the soldiers? And if He is not God, why was the sun darkened upon His crucifixion?

If He was not flesh, who was crucified on the cross? And if He is not God, who shook the foundations of the earth?

If He was not flesh, whose hands and feet were nailed to the cross?
And if He is not God, how did it happen that the veil of the temple was rent in twain, the rocks were rent and the graves were opened?

If He was not flesh, who hung on the cross between two thieves?
And if He is not God, how could He say to the thief, “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise”?

If He was not flesh, who cried out and gave up the ghost?
And if He is not God, whose cry caused many bodies of the saints who slept to arise?

If He was not flesh, whom did the women see laid in the grave?
And if He is not God, about whom did the angel say to them, “He has arisen, He is not here”?

If He was not flesh, whom did Thomas touch when he put his hands into the prints of the nails?
And if He is not God, who entered through the doors that were shut?

If He was not flesh, who ate at the Sea of Tiberias?
And if He is not God, on whose orders were the nets filled with fish?

If He was not flesh, whom did the apostles see carried up into heaven?
And if He is not God, who ascended to the joyful cries of the angels, and to whom did the Father proclaim: “Sit at My right hand”?
If He is not God and man, then, indeed, our salvation is false, and false are the pronouncements of the prophets.

From A Spiritual Psalter or Reflections on God
(from the works of our Holy Father, Ephraim the Syrian)
Click on the images to see an enlarged version.

How beautiful

Religions and churches can be bought and sold,
but our faith is not for sale.

Ideologies and dogma can be written up and down,
but the substance of faith is things unseen.

Conversion is not the exchange of one currency for another,
as Christ proves by overturning the tables
of the money changers in the Temple.

Sacrifice is not the purchase of a victim
by the work of our hands,
but the purchase of our lives by the death of the Victor.

No one can attain the truth by the acquisition of knowledge,
but the truth walking in a man is unmistakable.

When you have staked all you own in a game of dice and lost,
and then stake yourself and lose again,
what is there left to lose?

Nothing more stands between you and the Kingdom
except the battle against your self.
Will you listen to the Lord,
and slay what was never real
to obtain what can never be lost?

These truths are lodged in the heart of every man
as the hook is caught in the fish’s mouth,
yet both try to pull away,
to break free.

Though the line is strong, it can still be snapped.
Will you be caught by hook, or trapped with many in a net?

Compared with the good news of Christ,
all other stories are like the braying of an ass,
but even an ass can speak the truth.

Yet how beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace,
who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Only three know

The expression ‘common knowledge’ refers to things that are known by nearly everyone. A large part of what we know on a daily basis falls into this category. At the other end of the spectrum, there are things that are known by relatively few people, specialized knowledge perhaps. At the opposite extreme from common knowledge there is a zero point for shared knowledge in every individual human being. These are things that only three know. Who are these three? They are yourself, your confessor, and Christ.

We take great care to hide our sins from ourselves and from other people. We’re aware that God knows everything about us, yet we sometimes try to hide our sins even from Him. We are no different from Adam and Eve who covered themselves with fig leaves and hid among the trees of the Garden. Yet the fact is that we sin, and we don’t want to admit it, either from shame or because it would spoil our good reputations. But there is a remedy to our dilemma, to let only three know, and see what happens.

The one to whom we choose to divulge our great secret, that we sin, who can it be? Is it the parish priest, who is always there but not always available? Perhaps if we told him ‘about that’ he would look at us differently, he’d know too much about us and, even though we know he wouldn’t tell anyone, could we stand to look him in the eye after telling him ‘about that’? Maybe it’s a priest in another parish whom we don’t have to see on a weekly basis. That way it could be somewhat anonymous.

I can’t tell you who should be your confessor, the one to whom you confess your sins, but I can tell you this: It should be someone whom you trust, someone who will still love you no matter what you tell him, and that person can be anyone.

It should be someone whom you know will love you and respect you even more after you have confessed your sin than he did before you confessed. It should be someone who loves you enough to wait with you until your heart is ready, and whose gentle coaxing, ‘Tell me,’ loosens the words in your throat. He will not shame you, he will rejoice with you. He will not punish you, he will reward you. He will not bind you, he will free you. He will not let you remain blind, he will give you sight. He will not let you remain sick, he will heal you. He will stand aside and let Christ receive you to Himself. He will let Christ clothe you in the wedding garment of His righteousness and put His betrothal ring on your finger. And he will forget your sin just as Christ does, and invite you to sup with him, and with Him, at the wedding feast of the Lamb.

This is what happens, when you let only three know.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 1:7-2:2
I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
Luke 5:32

A man-loving God

Ο Μόνος Φιλάνθρωπος, o Mónos Philánthropos, the only lover of mankind, the only loving God. However you translate His name, it comes out the same, giving the lie to all who rely on His fierce anger to incinerate the unbeliever and the unrepentant. Aside from the ample hints throughout the scriptures that there will be a reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked, we have no details, except what our imaginations supply, clouds and songs of praise and light for the one, fiery lake and demons and darkness for the other. Our imaginations supply us with these images of eternal blessedness and eternal damnation whether we are Christians or not, whether we believe in the Bible or not: these images are the common domain of all humanity. That's what makes them suspect. We cannot, or we should not, second guess God, especially those of us who believe a God who becomes Man and tells us, 'If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father.'

I am no universal salvationist, but stay close as I can to the words of holy and divine scripture, yet I do not live in a religious world where God is roasting the unrepentant forever on the points of pitch forks. I don't know what punishments await the wicked or what joys are in store for the righteous, except what He reveals to me about myself here and now, nor who the wicked or the righteous be: I hope I will be numbered among the righteous, though I cannot see how that can possibly be, except only if the righteousness of Christ is covering me. Yet, I still believe in God who is Ο Μόνος Φιλάνθρωπος, o Mónos Philánthropos, the only lover of mankind, the only loving God. If it weren't plain enough in scripture, we have the testimony of the Church, which from the very beginnings has believed in this man-befriending God. How can anyone come away from reading the gospels or the epistles of the New Covenant without coming to this startling conclusion: God is love? Hear what an early father, a desert father, says,

The Lord, indeed, is the Lover of mankind so full of tender compassion whenever we turn completely toward Him and are freed from all things contrary. Even though we, in our supreme ignorance, childishness, and tendency toward evil, turn away from true life and place many impediments along our own path because we really do not like to repent, nevertheless, He has great mercy on us. He patiently waits for us until we will be converted and return to Him and be enlightened in our inner selves that our faces may not be ashamed in the Day of Judgment.

If that seems difficult and troublesome to us because practicing virtue is hard, but, more so, because of the insidious suggesting of the adversary, still He is very full of compassion, long-suffering and patient as He waits for our conversion. And when we do sin, He is ready to lift us up for He desires our repentance. And when we fall, He is not ashamed to take us back, as the Prophet says, “When men fall, do they not rise again? Or if one turns away, does he not return?” (Jeremiah 8:4) We only have to have a sincere heart and live in vigilance and be converted immediately after seeking His help and He Himself is most ready to save us. For He looks for our ardent will, as best we can, to turn toward Him. When we show good faith and promptness glowing from our desiring, then He works in us a true conversion.
Abba Makarios, 4th century