Glory to God for All Things

Brighter Than Any Royal Chamber

At 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 minimum 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.

29 Responses to “Brighter Than Any Royal Chamber”

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  1. Yannis says:

    Self help guides advise in practical terms without explicitly discussing the prime currents that reveal the heart ie motives that lurk between all action (or non-action).

    It is almost carefully (especially in their initial chapters) hidden that the drives for improvement are essentially based on desires or needs that have the ego at their root – however this is taken as a “normal” given and mingled with a set of rules that take you from A to B, where A is a dissatisfied ego and B is a satisfied one.

    Such an approach can never really “improve” anyone, because it cultivates and even raises to the point of ideals vices as drives.

    In this light, one’s ego needs and desires grow with every additional “achievent” he/she manages, while during failure and tribulations they pester one to no end like ερινυες of ancient myth (“I’m worthless! etc”), for failing to “succeed” (in satisfying the ego). No ego desire/need is ever satisfied by fulfilling it, but by transcending it.

    Some of the advice in such “guides” is particularly sad, such as repetitions of “positive” statements that one is told to say to one self (“i will do thing x today” etc); being essentially anti-prayers of the heart.

    It is easy, especially for people that don’t fit the “cookie cutter” molds of the world and become insecure because of this or for people that have no hint that their “needs” and “desires” are mere phantoms and dislike themselves for who they are (or who they are not), to be duped into believing that attitude and mentality based on ego-wants are the ones that can get one through life to “happiness”.

    Best Regards

    Yannis

  2. James says:

    “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.” These words strike the heart of my own wounds. Over the past year, I’ve come to a much greater love of theology and truth, but for me, like many others, a thief has sneaked in during the night and planted seeds of pride and self righteousness. I compare myself to Yakov in “The Murder” by Anton Chekhov, who follows the rule of Sabbath rest, but forgets why. Thankfully, it hasn’t taken such a grave sin to wake me. Instead, your blog, reading the Saints, and most importantly prayer have helped point me to our Beloved, the Christ. You speak the truth gently, always emphasizing the heart and true knowledge of God. Rarely do you condemn anyone, and then only indirectly. You don’t put up walls saying “you can’t believe this;” rather, you reveal simply the truth, letting anyone who wish to eat, eat. The consciousness is allowed to convict itself. No amount of external condemning can change the heart of a world who believes they are the victims and deserve to be saved from their oppressors.

  3. Dn Charles says:

    “Our task is not to find ways to “fix” one another – but to love one another.”
    Thanks for the thoughtful missal.

  4. I cannot yet “see” this, but I know enough to know I need to pray for it to be revealed. I know my ego is just as involved in my obsession with my errors as my successes. But the only “me” I have ever known is the logismoi.

  5. Marsha says:

    Like David, I can “see” this but dimly. Even less, can I believe it in my heart. But it’s nice to know there “is” a Truth to know./

  6. cd says:

    From one who spent her first decade of adulthood and final decade as a Protestant dealing with people who wanted to “fix” her, thank you.

    The Orthodox Church has brought me more healing in two years than well-meaning friends and their Christian self-help books managed in ten. The fact that they welcomed me into the community and chose to love me rather than try to fix me has been a big part of that. Better still, a dear friend, as broken as I, was watching and decided to follow me into the Church. Now she, too, has found a loving community and is finally finding some healing.

  7. Margaret says:

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, I so needed to read these words and I will re-read them in order to “hear” them in my heart. Glory to God for All Things!

  8. TheraP says:

    In a nutshell, in my view, psychotherapy assists a person whose development has been blocked toward “owning” more of themselves, including their freedom to make choices unhindered by automatic and unconscious thoughts and feelings.

    Once they are able to choose more freely (independent of “what others think”) they are then also more freely able “lose themselves” in order to follow Christ. For this is a totally different path than the one psychotherapy can provide. It is a path of “emptying” the self and allowing oneself to be filled by Christ. It is a finding of “one’s truest nature” with Holy Mystery, within the dynamic of the Trinity.

    Again, I may not have used the correct theological terminology, and I am really buttressing what Father Stephen has said, but from the perspective even of psychotherapy. We find our truest self within our relationship with God. But sometimes people need to clear out the detritus of themselves in order to find their way to God. I have seen this over and over. Not in every case to be sure. And not because I consciously try to steer someone to God. I leave that part to God. But when someone has made significant progress in psychotherapy, I often see a spontaneous turning of the person to an inner beckoning, you could say. One person said to me: “That door keeps opening. And I keep shutting it.” [The "door" inside his heart, though he did not know to use such a term.] To which I replied: “If you are shutting it, but it keeps opening, how does it open? From the other side?

    There is no doubt that psychotherapy cannot provide true wholeness. Only God can do that. But for some people, whose route is blocked, it can significantly assist them in clearing the “path” toward wholeness. After that my part is done. Though even there, I trust that my work is also guided by God’s grace and strength.

  9. The concern I have about the practice of psychotherapy (coming from my experience and the experience of family members) is that the predominant techniques actually validate logismoi and in so doing encourage the dysfunction. Rather than conquer the passions therapists try to balance them against each other (e.g. using vanity to help someone fight gluttony).

    This seems like a reasonable error given modern anthropology and the financial and social pressures on an individual for self-management (and on the therapist for “results”). The practical concerns necessitate favoring utilitarian models. For example, to “get you back to work” because that is a “more healthy lifestyle”.

    But the “you” they are helping is the “stream of consciousness” you. Which isn’t you at all, but just as foreign to you as a radio always running on in your car as you drive around.

    This led directly to my sister-in-law’s death. Her thoughts were dominated by self-destruction and her therapists always wanted to explore all those self-destructive tendencies rather than expunge them. Each new therapist just made her worse and all the medication in the world could not “cheer her up.” The worst thing about this is that much of her logismoi were true, that is, bad things had actually happened and were continuing to happen to her. But that trueness is the sort of trueness facts have, which is a rather mundane truth.

    Our lives may be full of facts, but they should be full of Christ.

  10. MichaelPatrick says:

    David said: “…about the practice of psychotherapy … the predominant techniques actually validate logismoi and in so doing encourage the dysfunction. Rather than conquer the passions therapists try to balance them against each other (e.g. using vanity to help someone fight gluttony).”

    Amen.

    The modern “science” of psychotherapy doesn’t know about the heart where the real pathologies hide, so, while the practitioners can intervene to salve a wound, they can’t make a person whole. Healing persons by purifying and illuminating the heart by grace is the kind of Orthodox psychotherapy that Met. Vlachos writes about. Doing it this way can bring every human faculty into order under the reign of Christ (God’s loving Word) by the Holy Spirit.

  11. TheraP says:

    To help someone overcome over-eating, it is best to help them focus elsewhere than food. Vanity, however, is a very poor focus! (indeed one focus could easily be prayer.)

    I’m sorry some have had poor experiences with therapy. And self-help books are generally a waste of time and money. However few excellent therapists wouldever urge anyone to focus on vanity. That feeds narcissism. And makes no sense to me as a therapeutic intervention.

    I’m not here to provoke conflict or engage in it. But just as we should not judge others, please refrain from branding all therapists and all psychotherapy as harmful. Some people need it. Others can benefit from it. But it need not and should not ever interfere with one’s relationship with God.

    Also, psychotherapy is not a science. It’s an art. There are really no “predominant techniques.” It is first and foremost a relationship of great delicacy and self-denial – on behalf of another person’s well-being. And it is practiced by persons, who are not charlatans. Such as myself. So it pains me that some here are, in effect, denouncing me or my profession. Please, have a little heart and compassion for me too. (thank you)

  12. Yannis says:

    Really sorry to hear about your sister in law David,
    may she rest in peace.

    Best Regards

    Yannis

  13. TheraP says:

    David says:

    The practical concerns necessitate favoring utilitarian models. For example, to “get you back to work” because that is a “more healthy lifestyle”.

    The “utilitarian” model comes from the insurance companies use of “managed care” – not from therapeutic preference. I completely agree that such “models” are not in the best interest of patients. Nor are they the preference of good therapists.

    Please, let’s focus on Father Stephen’s words. And I apologize if my own words have distracted anyone.

  14. Forgive me if I have distracted as well, or given the impression that I am opposed to the practice of therapeutic counseling. I was only furthering my first point that I have no idea how to identify myself apart from “the story of my life as told by my thoughts.”

    In my limited experience, nothing in this world teaches this. I have heard that the Church DOES it, but I am young and foolish yet and cannot even tell you yet what the Church as done in me.

  15. I would echo therap’s request.

  16. I think understanding that there is a difference between the logismoi and our true self (the heart), is important, even though the journey into the heart can be years long, even a lifetime. For myself it is liberating just to know that I am not the same thing as the story I tell myself (or hear told to myself). As St. Paul said, “Our life is hid with Christ in God.” In that sense, I feel a great safety in knowing that who I am is in God’s safe-keeping and that in seeking God I also will find my true self. It allows me to relativize my own “insanity,” rather than raising it to an ontological level it does not and never will possess.

    I have known therapists, by the way, who understood about logismoi and incorporated into their practice, sometimes by another name.

  17. Karen says:

    Dear Father, bless!

    “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.”

    Amen. Thanks for saying that! As a former psychology major, who has benefitted from counseling from Christian therapists, I find the discussion here interesting and valid points made on both sides.

    One of the key points made in my “Psychotherapy” class (and this was more than 25 years ago now, but I doubt much has changed in this regard) was that when various approaches to therapy were compared for effectiveness, it was found that there was little difference overall (whether, cognitive, behavioral, gestalt, etc.). Rather, the key difference in predicting the relative effectiveness of therapy was the amount of genuine empathy of the therapist that the client perceived. In my mind, this affirms the central truth of the gospel–that it is by God’s mercy we are saved and made whole. In my experience, the relative spiritual health of the counselor also obviously makes a huge difference to the effectiveness of the counseling relationship.

  18. MichaelPatrick says:

    TheraP, please forgive me for painting your profession with a broad brush and thank you for calling me to account.

  19. Just a brief additional thought on the desire to “fix.” I think it is a fairly common temptation – and that the “fix” nature of the temptation is born of our overly psychologized and managerial culture. The culture allows is to call a temptation by some other name. Often the temptation to fix is little more than a symptom of the fact that someone irritates us or that we have judged them (whether correctly or not). We tend to see problems as things that need to be managed or fixed. Parish priests are judged, sometimes, by how well they manage or fix “problems” in a congregation.

    Years ago I had a parishioner (when I was an Anglican priest) who told me that it was the job of a priest to “manipulate” everyone in the parish into being happy and to do so in a way that they did not realize they were being manipulated. It was one of the most frightening job descriptions I have ever heard. The consequences of this job description dawned on me immediately. “You mean it’s my fault whenever anyone in the parish is unhappy?”

    “Yes.” She replied.

    I tell this story in case you have ever been tempted to think such a thing about yourself or about another person. No one has the job of making anyone else happy. None of us have the job of fixing people. Even therapists. How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one. But the lightbulb really has to want to change.

    Fun joke. But it’s true.

    And for priests. We hear confessions. We pray. We offer the sacraments. But just as grace requires our acceptance – so does the effectiveness of so much else in our lives. And for some people, what grace and salvation may do in their lives may never relieve the irritation that others have with them. Salvation is not about making happy parishes or well-adjusted communities. Well-adjusted communities belong the Huxley’s Brave New World. The Church belongs to the Kingdom of God which is a war-zone, defeating sin, death and the devil. Salvation is good, but is often messy and even painful. It is nothing less than taking up the Cross of Christ.

  20. TheraP says:

    Michael, of course you are forgiven. And please, don’t be too hard on yourself. Blessings upon you. Now and forever.

  21. Karen says:

    “How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one. But the lightbulb really has to want to change.”

    In the version I heard, it was “psychiatrists.” :-) I still like that joke, too, and it makes a very important and true point. I think we could add Priests to that list!

  22. easton says:

    father, thank you for this. each time i read it i find something i missed before. i have personally been to a few VERY good therapists who really helped me, but i really wanted to be helped. i have also been to therapists and never returned! as in any field, teachers, doctors, you name it, there are good ones and bad ones. i feel that god would want me to get help if i needed it!

  23. yannis says:

    David Dickens wrote:
    “I was only furthering my first point that I have no idea how to identify myself apart from “the story of my life as told by my thoughts.”

    In my limited experience, nothing in this world teaches this. I have heard that the Church DOES it, but I am young and foolish yet and cannot even tell you yet what the Church as done in me.”

    I dont think that anyone will ever “know” any “other me”, than the “me” he/she already is. The point is to be able to tell the relative from the absolute, maya from atma, and transcend the relative; transcend does not mean annihilate (or change) – it means being able to see it for what it is and treat it accordingly.

    Glipmses of the true inner Self emerge out of the depths sometimes in moments of great lucidity and stillness that may result out of relaxation or of extreme pressure. In highly competitive activities, such as martial arts and playing chess for example, people cultivate spiritual stillness (they dont always call it that but that’s what thay are doing) because it is clear that there is a strong link between inner stillness, inspiration and creative leaps that are imperative on the mat and the chessboard.

    Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:12 are also revealing “…the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” This is clearly an undertaking that needs personal comitment, determination and a certain amount of force to be sure. Passively participating in the sacraments won’t do – neither waiting to be tought something – one needs to bring one self in a state that his very self will teach him. The Church can set the scene and lay the tools, but it cannot do the actual work; this is up to every one interested.

    A regime of prayer is needed, accompanied by fasting, a certain carefreeness and inner watchfulness. This last part particularly may be misunderstood; some people think that “temptations” are “bad” and hence start a -”go away!” -”no i won’t, i’ll just stay here and pester you” dialogue with them. Tempting/disturbing thoughts should be left alone to die off of their own accord. One should nto engage with them in dialogue – to “silence the inner dalogue” as the Fathers say in regards to the prayer of the Heart. Instead, closely observe them: their patterns, their intensity, their origin. In time one’s observing faculties and knowledge of one self increases and he/she is able to discern with more subtlety those who visit him and their disguises.

    Reading and thinking are always good, however nothing can subtitute for the practice of contemplative prayer in terms of making spiritual “progress”. After all, the spiritual life – like many other things – is not about accumulating knowledge but about obtaining skills (becoming a “skillful” person as Buddhists say).

    Opposite to the spirit of the world, “progress” in spiritual terms is a process of integrating with one self and transcending oneself (coming together and leaving behind), rather than a process of selecting parts of the self and accumulating things external to the self as the world teaches us, and these are among the principal fruits of noetic prayer.

    Its best, in my opinion, to avoid discursive prayers for daily practice, that allow one to “sleep” between sentences; two of the strengths of the Prayer of the Heart are precisely its brevity and repetitiveness; its brevity clamps the ego securely in place while its repetitiveness hammers the ego remorselessly and the resulting monotony acts as an all powerful magnet that sucks the clouds of the self away for the light of the true inner Self to shine.

    Remember not to hate or want to punish the ego for the thoughts you are having; this is itself an egoic trick and part of the (usually) strong ego reaction that one is bound to encounter due to his efforts.
    Gentleness and steadfastness are required in equal measure as part of an incremental approach to prayer.

    Also remember not to seek after goals other than the invocation, like “altered states of consciousness” or “visions” and other such. This kills the effect of prayer due to the expectation and anticipation. The goal of one is to invoke the Name – anything other comes about by the grace of God as the Fathers say.

    It is also highly advisable to seek guidance – if not available to you locally perhaps by correspondance with an experienced priest or monastic.

    Best Regards

    Yannis

  24. Carolina says:

    This word ‘love’ has been so corrupted that most of us really don’t know how to love, either God, ourselves, or our neighbors. Any ruminations on this subject?

  25. Thank you yannis. I think you misunderstood me slightly, but your answer was better than my question.

  26. Carolina,
    Most of what I’ve thought on the topic of love is written under the topic of the Cross. I understand “love” to be defined by Christ’s self-emptying on the Cross (Phil. 2:5-11). Which is also to say, that it is the hardest thing and the most complete thing we could ever do.

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