Glory to God for All Things

Brighter Than Any Royal Chamber

england-trip-186At the end of the Great Entrance, when the priest places the Holy Gifts on the altar, there are several verses which he repeats quietly. They are all deeply meaningful to me, but one has been on my heart much of late: “Bearing life and more fruitful than paradise, brighter than any royal chamber: Thy tomb, O Christ, is the fountain of our resurrection.” For me, these words point to the true and proper source of our healing and the definition of what it means for a human being to be whole.

That may sound almost obvious – but in our culture, the terms and teachings of the Orthodox faith must be carefully defined. We are part of a culture that has made “wholeness” into something of a cult – offering self-help books and related pop-psychology books as though they were just so many Romance Novels. Self-improvement has been a mantra of American culture since nearly its beginning (if not before). Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, that collection of homey sayings (“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise”) is only an early example of this cultural fascination.

With the advent of modern psychology our fascination has left off its interests in quaint advice and moved on to self-diagnosis (and the diagnosis of others) in terms and understandings borrowed from various branches of psychology. Thus, words such as “extrovert” and “introvert,” drawn from the work of Carl Jung, have simply become part of our general vocabulary, even if their popular meanings are somewhat removed from the theory which spawned them.

I have a sign beside the door of my church office. It is a quote from the first-century Jewish philosopher, Philo:

Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

In theological terms we would say that everyone you meet is a sinner like yourself. In our modern culture we might very well analyze everyone we meet and try to figure out precisely which battle it is in which they are fighting. Neurotics (of every stripe), Co-dependents, Bi-polars, Attention Deficit Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder – and the list goes on. Of course a century or more ago our ancestors were grouping people as “choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, and sanguine” – based on medical theories that have long since disappeared.

But what we mean by wholeness also has tremendous bearing on what we mean by “sick.” The teaching of the Church maintains that wholeness of the human being is defined by the resurrection and nothing less. We are not complete without the resurrection – it is the fullness of what it means to be in the image of Christ.

Nevertheless, there is a confusion in our culture with “spirituality” and “psychological wholeness” or with any number of other images.

One way around this confusion is to make our wholeness something completely “other” than ourselves. Thus, if salvation is understood as an extrinsic gift, and external reward bestowed on us by Christ, then there is only a good effort here and no particular expectation of more. The spiritual life consists in waiting for the second coming. This approach works well with a secular culture. So long as a relgious minimun is met (various groups have various minimums) all is well. We mark time in a secular world with a secular life. It is the Second Coming that will take care of the world in which we live.

This same external approach can have other versions – some more responsible than others – but all leaving the battle outside ourselves. Of course these approaches leave wholeness as a cultural norm – something we work on because we’d like to be a “better person” or simply through some sort of inner, moral imperative.

Of course, the Scripture offers something more:

But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18).

The transformation which is promised us in Christ is not a transformation that is necessarily delayed to the “afterlife” but is simply the work of God in us at all times to save. The resurrection is what salvation looks like. Thus we draw ever closer to that which is the fountain of our resurrection.

Met. Hierotheos Vlachos, in a series of books, writes about the spirtual life as “Orthodox Psychotherapy.” What he teaches is simply the traditional three-fold life of purification, illumination and deification. The Elder Sophrony and his disciples (cf. Archimandrite Zacharias) write of a movement from a ”psychological” to a “hypostatic” understanding. In this use of theological terms they are referring to a movement away from experience and problems as commonly understood and an extension, through grace, of ourselves into a fuller life of true personhood. I have found the Elder Sophrony’s writings to be of greater help to me personally – but that is nothing that I would ever generalize.

Our commitment to Christ is not necessarily a call to psychological well-being – as understood by the world. Such a healing may or may not be our lot. I have never been hesitant to recommend that someone see a doctor if it seemed clear that they suffered problems that needed medical help. There are certainly many mental conditions that are helped by medication. But medication is not resurrection. It is a band-aid. If you are bleeding that is a useful thing to have.

The greater realization is that we all share the same call in Christ – a call to go from “glory to glory.” The vision of beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord” is not unique to any one Christian. As St. Paul says, “But we all…” However the Christian beside you, beholding the same glory, may very well do so in the woundedness of his neurosis (or whatever terms we come to use). Our task is not to find ways to “fix” one another – but to love one another. Such love will make room for whatever woundedness it finds in others – perhaps even coming to behold the glory of God in the face of someone they would otherwise be tempted to fix. 

20 Responses to “Brighter Than Any Royal Chamber”

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  1. Deb Seeger says:

    gasp, how timely this word comes to me. Of course, it is a great follow up from yesterdays What We Do Not See. I am a bit teary so words are cumbersome at the moment. What you have said, is what has been in my heart for sometime. Sigh…and I thought something was wrong with me as so few seem to share the same idea. Reading this I feel so less alone. As the glory to glory does indeed apply to all even if it is not seen or evident. Some glory to glory is quiet and so planted deeply within hearts only Our Lord sees it.

  2. Michael says:

    Father, bless! A presbytera referred me to your website and it is on my daily reading list.

    In re:

    “Our commitment to Christ is not necessarily a call to psychological well-being – as understood by the world. Such a healing may or may not be our lot. I have never been hesitant to recommend that someone see a doctor if it seemed clear that they suffered problems that needed medical help. There are certainly many mental conditions that are helped by medication. But medication is not resurrection. It is a band-aid. If you are bleeding that is a useful thing to have.”

    This brings up a sorrowful perplexity for me. I showed autistic symptoms when I was a very small baby, and I think I have a mild version of what is now called Asperger’s Syndrome. I am now middle-aged and I have learned to compensate for this well enough to hold steady employment in the IT world and live independently, although bachelorhood has been my fate.

    There are many organic deficits and disorders (some inherited and some due to brain tissue damage) which make it difficult, with the best will in the world, for the sufferer to truly love and have empathy. Since that is central to what salvation is all about, how is it possible for such people to be saved at all?

    Now, if I were a Roman Catholic, and looked at this “juridically” I could make a “plea to the Judge” to go easy on me. But since salvation is ontological, not “juridical,” there is a real problem here. I’ve read “Orthodox Psychotherapy” (online) and I haven’t found an answer to this. How can an essence which is small and deformed, grow? It seems to me that, from a small, deformed thing, nothing else can be got, and that illumination and theosis are therefore impossible. If God says that He “wills all to be saved,” let allows people to be born without the necessary “wiring” to make it possible, then is God really telling us the truth?

    I have a fellow parishioner who is a chronic schizophrenic (on medications) and my parish had an experience, many years ago, with an individual who may well have been an explicit psychopath (no conscience or recognizable empathy at all). So this isn’t just about me. I am not in the worst position in this regard, that I know of, by a long shot.

    Indeed, it seems that anywhere from 2 to 5 percent of the population of any given country is in this sort of quandry. Is the Gospel really talking to such, or are they (we) “children of a lesser god?”

    I surely hope I am missing something very important. There can be no Faith without basic trust. As St. James said “Even the demons believe and shudder.”

  3. Aitor says:

    “Now, if I were a Roman Catholic, and looked at this “juridically” I could make a “plea to the Judge” to go easy on me.”

    I don’t understand what you mean there. For me, it helps in these psychological questions, as with many questions, to look at St. Irenaus. http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-religion/1708845/posts may help.

  4. Ronda Wintheiser says:

    Hard words.

    Beholding God’s glory in the face of someone who is not whole doesn’t seem that difficult. And although I’m sure it is true that trying to fix someone is sometimes the wrong thing to do, surely that is only half of a paradox that includes the opposite truth; that sometimes our task IS to try to find ways to “fix” someone — to help them fix themselves.

    What is difficult is knowing when to stop trying to help another person within whom you see the glory of God and yet is in desperate need of healing, and let go, since that so often means that you lose that person, and that you may have to watch them continue to lose themselves and fade away into non-existence.

    By the way, Michael, I don’t see how being able to feel empathy equals love, especially if you remember that those of us who don’t fall as high on the neurological bell curve as you do (but we’re all there somewhere!!! :) ) have to deal with just the opposite emotions. I think real love may be treating someone with kindness and gentleness and compassion when you don’t feel one bit like doing it and indeed may feel like doing just the opposite. In that sense, you could consider that deficit of yours a silver lining. :)

  5. Daniel says:

    Yes, these have been difficult lessons to learn…and continue to learn.

    On so many occasions, even in making major life decisions, I have confused physical and soulful beauty for true spirituality.

    In my “idealistic” evangelical days, I was married at a relatively young age. My understanding of faith and marriage was very superficial and somewhat “magical”. When life happened, ideals vanished. I struggled and grew. She did not. After 12yrs of marriage, she decided to no longer continue in the Orthodox faith,or in marriage.

    Being single again, I developed a relationship with a young lady who converted to Orthodoxy. I truly found a “soul-mate”. To this day, I have still not known another person I considered to be my peer on so many levels.

    Unfortunately, over time it became clear that I was mistaking soulfullness for spirituality.

    Everything seemed to be such a perfect fit…until “life happened”. I began to turn more toward faith. She turned more towards looking for worldly means of escape.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t seek help where help is needed. What I am saying is “first things first”.

    Physical beauty, intelligence and charisma mean nothing if we do not share a common passion for our First Love.

    It’s a lesson I continue to learn the hard way.

  6. Chocolatesa says:

    Thank you for this as well. Both because I have a close friend who goes through periods of psychosis, and also for your first quote about being kind. I’m going to print that one out and put it on my monitor at work beside the quote from Mother Gavrilia that goes something like “Be thankful for your sufferings, for how else is coal turned into diamond?”

  7. Michael,

    I believe what I am sharing here should be good news to you. The wounds you carry are not unlike St. Paul’s “earthen vessels.” When he says in response to that “that the excellency might be of Christ” he is not speaking juridically. With Aspergers, you do what you can. We have a youth with fairly severe Aspergers in the parish. One Sunday (after several years) he made eye contact with me at the Cup. I recognized that what had happened that day might have been a greater miracle within him than many others who were less “wounded” had ever seen in their life. God alone knows how our “resurrection” comes forth within us. But I can say in my ministry that I have seen its signs in those who were deeply impaired by various “psychological” matters, while others, less impaired showed far less. God alone can say what love is in the heart of someone with Aspergers. It will look different. But it will be love, for love is of God and not of us.

    It remains, can we love one another enough to allow God to do his work? We live in a culture that not only judges surface beauty but continually judges the psychological well-being of others (according to whatever latest model).

  8. Aitor,
    There are questions unresolved in the passage you offer from St. Irenaeus. Some psychological woundings make “free will” somewhat problematic, certainly less than ideal. Not all choices are open to all people. By “juridically” the author is referring to the mere extrinsic righteousness taught by some outside of Orthodoxy. Instead, his desire is for a true, inward healing and transformation in Christ – which will likely be a somewhat secret work given the woundedness within his brain. We take comfort in Christ’s promises and confidence that His work continues within us. Of course our will is free, as St. Irenaeus taught, but it may be hampered in its freedom. So, I suggest, we use what we can, knowing that God is working in us more than we can possibly imagine.

    I am also aware that R.C.’s by no means look at salvation from a purely “juridical” point of view, though that point of view does have its history within Western Catholicism as well. I would not describe it as a dominant position within contemporary Roman Catholicism.

  9. Lewis says:

    “Our task is not to find ways to “fix” one another – but to love one another. Such love will make room for whatever woundedness it finds in others – perhaps even coming to behold the glory of God in the face of someone they would otherwise be tempted to fix.”

    I grew up with a brother (two years older than me) who had cerebral palsy. He could feed himself if his food was chopped and also dress himself, but he could not read and write. His speech was limited though adequate. He did have an amazing memory for a few things, which amused everyone who knew him. In short, we could not fix him.

    He grew up in a church full of people who loved him, and he was one of the most loving people I have known. When he died, friends rejoiced that he would be made whole in a resurrected body. But because of his simple, loving life, everyone remembers him with deep affection.

    Though I an blessed with many “normal” functions, the people who have known us both have more loving memories of him than me. My memory of him keeps me honest about myself (at least some of the time) including my own fixability. Gratefully, I have almost given up fixing others, knowing that I would likely fix them the wrong way.

  10. Lewis,

    Good to hear from you. I suspect your story is common in many ways – but not widely enough shared in our culture of health, beauty and all things well. Thank God for those who know their need of a Savior and recognize that among sinners, “I am first.”

  11. Bruce says:

    Is it possible that what really unites us in Christ are our wounds and imperfections…the poverty of spirit which recognizes that true Wholeness is not possible without a union with God?

    The truly deceived are the ones (like me) who find ways to believe faithfully that they are truly beyond God’s help; either in a state of despair or pride.

    When I believe my wounds are beyond Christ’s ability to heal, I am seperated from Christ in a state of despair (the self centered flip side of the pride coin) convinced that God can’t help me. This is no less a seperation than when my pride attempts to convince me that I don’t need God’s help ..I’ve got it handled just fine without Him.

    Perhaps my seperation from God is all about what I really believe about me and not about any limitation in God’s ability to transform my life. When I believe the lie that God cannot love me, forgive me, and accept me just as I am, I am not able to have a living Faith that He is both My Savior and My Lord. This seperation and limitation is something I’m imposing on God, not Him on me. The basis of this seperation is my faith in the lie that I am beyond God’s ability to help.

    My experience has been that what brings me to Christ are not my victories and strengths, but rather my failures, wounds, and my struggles. These reminders of my need for Christ can lead to a connection with Him when I am willing to do my part to reach out from the pit of my despair and grasp His Hand. When I accept my wounds as my Bridge to Christ not as the gulf which seperates me from Him, I am ‘broken and contrite’ and isn’t this where true repentence and thus relationship with God begins???

  12. Visibilium says:

    A colleague, who had recently given birth, informed me that her son had been born deaf. My first–though unspoken–reaction was that her entrance into heaven would be much easier than mine. God’s introducing such a constraint into her life will become part of her habitual mode of living. In other words, loving the least will become her habit. How much easier the love of neighbor will be written into her heart than for someone who faces no such constraint and has to bootstrap a love of neighbor.

  13. Bruce,

    I have long preached that it is our weakness that is the key to our salvation, not our strength (talents, etc.). In my weakness, God’s strength is made perfect. In my weakness I can learn to pray like the Publican, while in my strength, I invariably pray like the Pharisee. Blessed are the meek.

  14. Bruce says:

    Father Stephen,

    Thank you and thanks to God for this blog…when I can begin to see my weakness as an opening for Christ, I become grateful for my weakness and more willing to honestly acknowledge it. I can praise God for his ability to transform my weakness into a new Binding to Him. When I am broken, His Light can shine in….

  15. zoe says:

    Thanks for this Blog, Fr. Stephen. Great discussions and very illuminating as always true with your other blogs as well. It is in recognizing my sins and failures and not making excuses for them or justifying them that I’m beginning to identify and hear that “call to go from ‘glory to glory.’ The vision of beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord’…….” Praise God!
    My husband and I completed our one year Orthodox Chrismation anniversary this month! May God continue to bless and have mercy on us.

    Happy New Year to all!

    Father, bless.

  16. Romanós says:

    “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

    So this is from Philo Judaeus? Well, I never… Thanks for sourcing it out for me. I quoted it in a post of mine a while back, http://cost-of-discipleship.blogspot.com/2008/07/do-whatever-falls-into-your-hands.html, but I didn’t know at the time its origin.

    God bless you in the new year AD 2009.

  17. Ian says:

    Thank you Father; I needed to read this.

    A blessed and joyous 2009 to you and your family. With love and prayers from Down Under.

  18. Margaret says:

    Yes, Thank you, Fr. Stephen!
    May God bless you and your family in all things at all times!
    Happy 2009!

  19. Karen C says:

    Dear Father, bless! That verse about “earthen vessels” always provokes a sense of profound “joyful mourning” in me–it never ceases to bring a lump to my throat and tears to my eyes! It has one of my favorites for many years. I have written before that I have a sister who suffers chronic mental illness. I also have a delightful and loving “special needs” daughter who has been diagnosed as on the Autism Spectrum with traits of Aspergers Syndrome. I have also recently discovered that I likely have a form of ADD and have suffered all my life from it without being so labeled. All of these “weaknesses” have played a critical role in God’s being able to shape me more into His likeness–into the person I am becoming by His grace. Were God to offer me or my loved ones healing from any of these conditions, I would embrace that in a heartbeat. If He continues to withhold such healing–or “healing” is offered by someone or by a means contrary to the Gospel–I will continue to embrace “weakness” and “infirmity” for the sake of Christ–that He may more and more be “all in all” in and through my life.

    Bruce and Rhonda, thank you for your comments. They resonate with my experience as well.

    Michael, needless to say what you have shared is very close to my heart for obvious personal reasons. You have a unique perspective that offers valuable insight for all of us not so cumbered. I see obvious compassion in the thoughtful way you have written about your experience and that of those in your parish. I hope Father’s comments have also encouraged you.

  20. Father Stephen,

    Sorry for the late reply. The points you bring up from the text I linked to are exactly what I meant. If one’s free will is diminished because of wounds or other means, I’m sure God’s mercy will be huge upon him/her. That is, salvation he/she will be able to accept, since it’s what he/she has waited for during their wounded life. Thanks for you words and glad you don’t look at us as lawyers in current days ;) (no offense)

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