Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On the Passions

I hope you are all having a Blessed Lent! Remember, Lent is not just sorrow and somberness. It is a “Bright Sadness” as Father Alexander Schmemann calls it. Amid the remembrance of the Crucifixion and our own lowliness we have the celebration of the Annunciation, which heralds the beginning of our Salvation, and the Feast of Feasts, the Resurrection at our journey’s end! “Be of Good Cheer, I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33)

Passions. I have mentioned these before, and I felt it might be good to clarify exactly what I mean by them. First off, this is no novelty of mine, but is a term used by many of the Holy Fathers concerning disordered desires. Passion comes from the Greek word Pascho, which means to suffer. In a sense, we suffer because of our passions (perhaps not all that noticeably either, which is part of their insidiousness). But isn’t passion a good thing? It’s good to have a passion for something, says the guy two offices down from you who bikes to work. Hiking, volunteering, or working, these are all good passions... But the term predates our relatively recent recycling of the term for something good or neutral.

Briefly looking at an English dictionary entry for passion I found the following definitions :
1. any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling, as love or hate.
2. strong sexual desire; lust.
3. a strong affection or enthusiasm for an object, concept,

What do these tell us about the word passion? All have the connotation of being bold. These are not tiny inclinations. And secondly, they are emotive, base, primal. They come from a very raw part of psyche. Drive is another word that comes to mind. They come from down deep within us, like the fires that fuel a steam engine in a great ocean liner. Sometimes, we may not even be fully aware of them.

Think of those very strong desires that are often marred by missing the mark. Love is mixed up with Lust. Overeating grows from a desire of cheap all you can eat buffets. Resentment is birthed from withholding forgiveness. Laziness, Sloth, from apathy for whatever task is at hand. They often start as subtle mixups, but overtime become ingrained and powerful pulls that drive a wedge between us and our ability to grow closer to God.

The 8th century monk, Saint Peter of Damascus tells us that every virtue lies between the straits of two passions:

“Each virtue lies between two unnatural passions. Moral Judgement lies between craftiness and thoughtlessness; self-restraint, between stubbornness and debauchery; courage, between overbearingness and cowardice; justice, between over-frugality and greed.” - St. Peter of Damascus

Our Holy Father, Saint Maximos the Confessor says, it is because of the fall, that we are subject to these disordered desires that rob of us of our divine glory. Otherwise all desire, all passions would be of a good design: 

“Impurity of soul lies in its not functioning in accordance with [divine] nature. It is because of this that impassioned thoughts are produced in the mind. The soul functions in accordance with the [divine] nature when it remains dispassionate in the face of provocations both from [worldly] things and from conceptual images of those things.” - St. Maximos the Confessor

The Great Ascetic Saint Theodore speaks of passions being aroused by logisimoi. Those thoughts that if allowed to linger in the mind become great tempters toward sin. It is in our best interest (even duty, if we can muster the strength to call it that) to fight these, and not let them stir our passions toward sin: 

“It does not lie within our power to decide whether or not the passions are going to harass and attack the soul. But it does lie within our power to prevent the impassioned thoughts from lingering within us and arousing the passions to [shameful] action.” - St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic

Saint Neilos of Sinai, a priest friend of John Chrysostom, says we should always be watchful of our heart and mind. Even if we have successfully fought and overcome a passion of say, lust or avarice, perhaps some new thing will creep in and arouse it. Say a new paycheck and the recent release of some new smartphone, whereby one purchase quickly becomes many more. Or a confrontation with scantly clad woman, soon becomes a brief fantasy involving many terribly shady situations. As Saint Anastasios the Persian says: "We Christians, fall, but we get up. And we do this until we can die standing on our feet."

“For if someone does not watch his mind attentively, he will find that, after he has cut down the passions, the images of past fantasies begin to emerge like young shoots. If he constantly allows these images to force their way into his mind and does not bar their entry, the passions will once more establish themselves within him; despite his previous victory, and he will have to struggle against them once again.” - Saint Neilos of Sinai

And lastly, Saint Mark the Ascetic confesses the prime injunction for Christians and the only 100% security against falling into sin; the acquisition of the Spirit of Peace. By the indwelling of One of the Holy Trinity, we are preserved from death. That spiritual death, that Christ says leads to total despair. 

“Peace is deliverance from the passions, and is not found except through the action of the Holy Spirit.”  - St. Mark the Ascetic

This my friends, is GRACE! The ministry/action/indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our lives, in our hearts, in our minds.

Festal Pairing:

Today, March 1st, is the Feast of St. David of Wales (St. Eudocia if you are a Byzantine). He's a baller dude, who was ordained in the Holy Land and was a great ascetic. He convoked a synod in the 6th century that stamped out the last vestiges of Pelagianism in the British Isles. Have an Amber or Red Ale in his Honor!

Glory to God for All Things!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

On the Christian Family and Martyrdom

How many of you have said to yourself "this isn't about me" or "that will never happen". Well, the devil has many snares set up for us. Many of them much subtler than we think.  Some of you may be in the position of having parents or family members who as Saint Nikolai Velimirovich says "want a secure life" for you and your siblings. In doing so, they fret and worry needlessly, and in their desires for your success, set you up for a life in opposition to Christ. Or maybe you are blessed with a wonderful household, in which case, keep this in the back of your mind, that you yourself don't lead your family away from Christ by seeking material success and societal honor. First a little about Saint Nikolai.

Saint Nikolai Velimirovich is a Russian saint from the early 20th century. He grew up in Serbia in the late 19th century and was ordained to Holy Orders. He eventually became a bishop and was known for his literary and oratory skills and was given the nickname "The New Chrysostom". He was imprisoned in Austria by the nazis and left Europe for the United States after the war. He reposed at St. Vladamir's Seminary in Pennsylvania. 

The saints he mentions are from 3rd century. Clement of Ancyra was a bishop and martyr for Christ. He was tried by Diocletian and eventually beheaded when he refused to renounce his faith. Euphrosyne was a Christian Woman of great piety and mother of Clement of Ancyra.

In our day, you usually hear these words from parents: "We want to secure the life of our child." That is why they work very hard to amass wealth, often unjustly, to educate their child in the vocation which brings the greatest physical security and material benefit. This is done by so-called Christians! They do this because their concept of a real life and the real security of life is erroneous. See, how a true Christian mother prepares her son for a real life. At the time of her death, Blessed Euphrosyne spoke to her son Clement of Ancyra:

"Do me the honor, my son, and bravely stand up for Christ and confess Him strongly and without hesitation! I hope, in my heart, that the crown of martyrdom will blossom on you in my honor and for the salvation of many. Do not be afraid of threats, nor swords, nor pains, nor wounds, nor fire. Let nothing separate you from Christ, but look up to heaven and from there await your great, eternal and rich reward from God. Let this be my reward from you, my sweet son, for my pain in child-bearing and effort surrounding your education that I may be called a mother of a Christian Man." - St. Nikolai Velimirovich

An Orthodox Priest tells us about the importance of the family and connects it with the monastic struggle. If the family is based in the love of Christ, then it can be just as nourishing as the life of a monk.

Normally, the type of spirituality most natural to married and non-monastic single people is the Eucharist. In this form of spirituality, Jesus Himself is our 'spiritual father' through the Eucharist and the priesthood, and the Church is our spiritual mother. Our families are our 'cells'. Just as Abba Moses the Black was told by his elder, 'sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything', so too for us non-monastics, our spiritual mother the Church teaches: stay in your families (which are the Church in microcosm) and your families will teach you everything. The three primary acts of the Church--prayer, fasting, charity--provide with the sacramental and liturgical cycle of church life a complete ascetic rule that is inexhaustible and perfectly adaptable to our strengths (or weaknesses). There is nothing spiritually limiting or restricting in the Eucharistic spirituality of the Church, no grace absent, no spiritual door closed.

In one of his many of homilies on the married life, our Holy Father John Chrysostom says the holiest of families, would rival the faith of the monks:

"Pray together at home and go to Church; when you come back home, let each ask the other the meaning of the readings and the prayers. If you are overtaken by poverty, remember Peter and Paul, who were more honored than kings or rich men, though they spent their lives in hunger and thirst. Remind one another that nothing in life is to be feared, except offending God. If your marriage is like this, your perfection will rival the holiest of monks." - St. John Chrysostom

Martyrdom can take many shapes. But it has the same goal. The surrendering of our will to the Love of God. By the giving of our life in the death of the body in the name of Christ, we become like Peter, being led where he do not wish to go, and suffering death in the Name of Christ. It is a sacrifice, to give up our will for His. In doing so, we find His will, becomes our Will too; and our new life puts to the sword all the passions we have accumulated in our living in the world. Our Holy Father John reminds us that suffering with our ascetic struggle enjoins us to a life in Christ:

"How can we suffer for Christ, you ask? If someone accuses you falsely of anything, and if you bear it patiently, if you give thanks, if you pray for him; you do all this in humility, you do this for Christ. But if you curse him, if you speak against him, if you  attempt revenge, even if you do not go through with it, it is not for Christ’s sake, and you will suffer loss, and are deprived of your reward on account of your intention. It rests with us to either profit spiritually, or squander our blessings, by how we bear our afflictions. It depends not upon the nature of the affliction, but upon the disposition of our own hearts. Great were the sufferings of Job, yet he suffered with thankfulness; and he was justified, not because he suffered, but because in suffering he endured it thankfully." - St. John Chrysostom

Our Anonymous Orthodox Priest continues by saying that the goal Monasticism is not Monasticism in of itself, but holiness; the martyrdom of the soul and body. This continual self denial keeps our minds and hearts aligned with Christ and from falling prey to the passions. This is asked of not just a few Christians, not even of most Christians, but all Christians. As Paul says, We "Put on Christ" in our Baptism and we prepare to live a life with Him and in Him.

Above all, there is no ceiling on sanctity or holiness in the Church: Jesus' command in Mattthew 5 is addressed to all Christians: "Therefore, be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Mt.5:48). Monasticism, after all, is not an end in itself. The 'monastic ideal' is not monasticism itself but something higher than itself: martyrdom. Let us remind ourselves that monasticism began as a form of martyrdom, 'white' martyrdom; and martyrdom is nothing more or less than the total denial of oneself for the sake of Christ and the cross, a path of grace not limited to monks but open to all Christians.

Today is the feast of our Holy Father Saint Isidore of Pelusium. Look him up, he's pretty cool. I'd recommend a Golden or Blonde Ale as the beer pairing for this feast day. Enjoy and God Bless!