Glory to God for All Things

Obedience and the Modern World

glazunov21In the modern project, human beings are autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about their self-actualization.

Few things make a modern person more uncomfortable than the topic of obedience. Many Orthodox read statements declaring that “obedience is the foremost rule for monastics,” and immediately thank God they are not monastics. Our minds easily race to horror stories of cult-like obedience and spiritual abuse. Some may very well have experienced obedience in an abusive form. Today, obedience is about as far away from popular virtue as at any time in history.

It is difficult for us to understand obedience as a virtue – since it seems to contradict the freedom that is essential for personhood. And freedom is indeed essential. In healthy situations, even in the strictest monastic obedience, freedom is never lost. It remains an inherent part of our humanity. However, how that freedom is manifest is quite another matter.

St. Maximus the Confessor is the great teacher on the nature of the human person in Orthodox thought. His teachings are the underpinning of the 5th and 6th Ecumenical Councils. He looked with great subtlety at the nature of freedom and described in particular the nature of the human will.

He described the will as a function of our nature. Some will ask, “What’s a nature?” The simplest answer is that it is “what we are.” Our bodies are the biological expression of what we are. The soul is a psychic expression of what we are. The Church holds that our nature is not fallen – it suffers no distortion. Were our nature distorted we could never be nor become what we truly are.

The will is that movement of our nature towards its proper end. Human nature wills to be human and it is freely able to will what is in accord with its nature. Our nature does not will to grow like a tree. Our nature does not will to burn like a star.

But there is a distortion in our existence. This is described as a fundamental loss of integrity – a fragmentation within the human person. We experience not only our nature’s will, but also the agony of choice. St. Maximus used the word “gnome” (pronounced “no mee”) to describe this “choosing will” (often translated “gnomic will”). The word gnome in Greek is normally translated, “opinion,” which seems to me to render the experience of “choice” rather well.

We choose because we like something or we fear its pain. This bi-polar existence, torn between pain and pleasure, is the engine that drives choice and torments the gnomic will. St. Maximus sees this as precisely the character of human fallenness. Our attachment to pleasure and fear of pain are what the fathers term the passions.

And it is true freedom from such passions that is the hallmark of the Classical Christian life. The struggle of prayer and fasting, the whole experience of spiritual discipline has as its goal our union with God and freedom from the cycle of pain and pleasure. We were not created for pain, and the pleasure which is truly natural to us differs from the pleasure which we now experience.

The Orthodox vision of natural human existence seems quite foreign to the endless Modern search for happiness. The map of the world in the Modern Project is (in theory) a constant movement away from pain and towards greater and greater pleasure (in its broadest sense). In America this is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence’s right to the “pursuit of happiness.” It is also a fundamental embrace of a two-storey worldview. In this life, the Modern Project would say, there is only pleasure and pain. These are objective realities, the same for believer and non-believer. There is no escape from the cycle, so we must work to maximize pleasure and diminish pain.

The Classical Christian world asserts a transformation in which our life becomes centered not in pleasure or pain but in Christ Himself. Pleasure and pain are relativized through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Union with Christ makes possible apatheia (freedom from the bondage of the passions). It is obvious that most people will not attain to a great measure of spiritual stature such that they will live without the passions. But the Christ-centered model gives the ordering of life. And it is here that the practice of “obedience” comes to the fore.

At its heart, obedience is not the destruction of the will, or simply “doing what you are told.” Obedience requires a union of trust with God in which we recognize that the direction of our life is a gift rather than a choice of our own devising. It is a movement of the heart towards God rather than an assertion of the self. This, however, cannot be coerced. There is no obedience with coercion.

But the Classical Model believes that in Christ the fullness of human nature is revealed. Human nature is not a project of our own construction, but a reality that is made manifest in our existence. Thus the “object” of our struggle is not something yet to be revealed by science, but the reality revealed in the God/Man, Jesus Christ.

For some, the distinction between obedience and choice might seem to be mere semantics. After all, isn’t obedience just another choice? I like the model of marriage (classically understood) as an example of the difference. In a healthy marriage, we do not “choose” fidelity. If a spouse is at the point of having to choose faithfulness, then the marriage is in crisis. For the nature of choice is easily subject to the winds of pleasure and pain.

Obedience in marriage is simply living in the state of faithfulness. To be unfaithful is not a choice to be considered, regardless of the pleasure it might offer or the pain it might seem to assuage. It is this classical understanding enshrined in the vows of traditional Western marriage: “in sickness and in health, for better or for worse…’til death do us part.” Pain and pleasure are taken for granted and not brought in as objects of choice. (For those who immediately need to qualify everything – of course there will be circumstances under which a marriage is dissolved. That is a matter for a different conversation.)

C.S. Lewis, when he became a Christian, said that he did not then ask himself what he believed. Rather, he asked, “What does a Christian believe?” This is the model of the ancient catechumenate. The catechumens were not even given the Creed until after Baptism! The Modern Project has transformed Christianity into a debating society. The bulk of theological writing after the Reformation is an argument for one thing or another, opinions representing theological choices. The Modern understanding has greatly eroded the nature of believing even among those within “Classical” Christian Churches. Surveys in the 1990’s showed that over two-thirds of American Catholics held a more-or-less symbolic view of the Eucharist rather than the traditional view that the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. This is predictable given the nature of the Modern Project. In symbolic views, the locus of the “change” is within the mind of the individual. There, choice is allowed to play its essential modern role. “The bread and wine have meaning because I choose to believe it.”

I have occasionally been upbraided by visiting Catholics in my parish who are not allowed to receive communion (the Orthodox and Catholics are not in communion with each other). The protest is: “But I believe that it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ!” For them, the important question is what they themselves individually think.

All of the sacraments undergo similar assaults in the Modern Project. For the individual and his/her choice to be truly free (and thus sovereign), things must be only as we want or choose them to be. Things only mean what we think they mean. Being told that we are wrong insults our freedom and invades our sense of sovereign privacy.

Classical obedience recognizes first and foremost that things are not as they may seem, but as they are revealed to be in Christ. Two verses of Scripture illustrate this understanding:

By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible. (Heb 11:3 NKJ)

and

 …we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2Co 4:18 NKJ)

The Kingdom of God, contrary to the Modern Project, is not a goal towards which we strive, nor something we are “building up” in our midst. Rather, the Kingdom of God has already burst forth in our midst in the coming of Christ. It is inexorable in its presence, not subject to our choices or preferences. The Kingdom of God has come whether we like it or not. Classical Christianity is thus not a “project.” It is not something we are building or working on. It is an obedience to a reality that is already present, revealed in Christ. It is not a conservatism that tries to preserve something that has passed. It is a way of life that lives in response to what is given in the Kingdom.

The nature of Modernity is that it can be nothing other than a project. The question is thus always, “What’s the project now? Where should we direct our attention? What can we fix next?” The Project can be as radical as a Marxist paradise or as modest as the pursuit of a career. But it is decidedly about this world of pleasure and pain.

Next article: The Modern Vocation

 

95 Responses to “Obedience and the Modern World”

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  1. EPG says:

    Father, after reading previous posts, and again after reading this post, I wonder if you correctly read the Declaration of Independence when you equate the phrase “pursuit of happiness” as used by Jefferson with the pursuit of pleasure at the forefront of the consumer culture.

    I had long understood that the framers did not, by that phrase, simply mean the pursuit of pleasure, but something more fundamental. That seems to be a view shared by at least some

    [I]n his 2005 lecture at the National Conference on Citizenship, [U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony] Kennedy notes that while in modern times there is a “hedonistic component” to the definition of happiness, for the framers of the Declaration of Independence “happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.” In the context of the Declaration of Independence, happiness was about an individual’s contribution to society rather than pursuits of self-gratification. While this sense has largely fallen out of use today, it’s important to keep these connotations of happiness mind when studying political documents from the 18th century.”

    http://blog.dictionary.com/happiness/

    I am not suggesting that this is a complete or comprehensive account of what was meant by “pursuit of happiness” in that document. But I do think that it suggests that the way the Framers used it is not the way the phrase is misused today. The Framers may not have been Orthodox, but they weren’t early 21st century consumers either.

  2. fatherstephen says:

    EPG,
    No, but the Framers were thoroughly committed to the Modern Project – and though their notion of “Happiness” was certainly loftier than our current hedonistic consumerism, they were nevertheless quite foundational. The present state of our culture is simply fruit of a tree they helped plant. They failed to consider sufficiently (though some privately worried and wrote about it) the need for virtue in a society. They built the structures for “freedom,” but helped begin the displacement of the structures of virtue.

    We have probably suffered more from the inadvertent destruction of the extended family, brought about by the extreme mobility demanded in our economy (particularly after WWII and into the present).

    But the Modern Project was not their invention. They’re a chapter in a longer book. But their chapter belongs in that book, not as part of Classical civilization. America has never intended (as far as I can see) to be an enemy of Classical Christianity, but it has become so.

  3. Mrs. Mutton says:

    Father, I hope that you are intending to write that book. I’ve saved every one of these posts so far.

  4. fatherstephen says:

    When I finish this present series, it will be gathered into a “Page” on the site for easy access. And yes, I am planning for it to form a section in my next book.

  5. Dino says:

    I recall a sublime talk by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra on Obedience many many years ago.
    I then jotted down that ‘obedience is the most comfortable pillow in existence’, however, I remember his clarifications…:
    That does not mean that it is just a lack of accountability for my actions, or a freedom from having to take difficult decisions that makes this ‘pillow’ so ‘comfortable’. Rather, it is the ontological change that is brought about in me. It is brought about through that particular joy that is a corollary of the certainty, the knowledge, that “I am doing what pleases God and His servant”.
    I now see that obedience is the surest and fastest way to enter the stream of the Kingdom of God and allow His grace to reveal our ‘logos’ in its fullness.
    Those monastics that dive straight into it are truly blessed souls!

  6. Fr. Marty Watt says:

    Father, I wonder if we should start prefacing our use of the word “obedience” with the word “healthy”: Healthy obedience? In so doing, perhaps we could begin to point to the differences between the obedience due to God, and the choice to follow a spiritual guide toward salvation. Just a thought.

    There was also discussion in seminary about philosophical “choice” and how that is distinguished from free will. The only “choice” I’m told is the choice to obey. I’m still not sure I understand the concept correctly – perhaps you could write on that topic at some point?

  7. Mrs. Mutton says:

    Ah, but there’s a way for us married folk, too – it’s called “marital obedience,” when we accede to the wishes of our spouse, whether or not we want to, out of love or even out of a sense of keeping the peace in the household. Uh-huh. Doesn’t sound so easy now, does it? ;-)

  8. Michael Bauman says:

    EPG, you note that “happiness” for the Framers, quoting Justice Kennedy: “happiness meant that feeling of self-worth and dignity you acquire by contributing to your community and to its civic life.”

    Self-worth and dignity are part of the Modern Project because they pre-suppose individualism as defined by the various revolts against Traditional faith in Europe.

    It is virtually impossible for we Americans to imagine a culture and a time when individualism did not exist and was not considered to be a preeminent virtue. The United States of America was all about the individual revolt and independence from traditional culture.

    It is interesting to me that it will probably end by imploding into a dystopian consumerist tyranny–a tyranny that will encourage and enable our constant hedonism in the name of freedom. Using short-term pleasure as a sop against the existential angst the modern world specializes in creating by bombarding us with fake choices. The modern state is a master at keeping its people in a state of fear about something or other–not unlike Orwell depicted in 1984 except far more refined and subtle

    The Orthodox Church with our hierarchy and obedience and tradition and knowledge of the passions and the fullness of the revealed truth has never been an easy fit in the U.S. culture. It is becoming even less so.

    We are after all a worshiping community focused on submitting to the love of Jesus Christ so that we may transcend this world by His grace and mercy. But it is not a gnostic transcendence but a “Behold, I make all things new” transcendence as we enter into the revealed Kingdom. That is the mystery.

  9. Michael Bauman says:

    Marital obedience is still submitting our own individual will to Jesus Christ in one of the continuing sacraments that create community and allow us entry into the Kingdom.

    I know when I look into the eyes of my lovely wife and see the love she has both for me and our Lord, it is much easier to repent and much easier to see much more of those things I need to repent.

  10. CJ says:

    EPG (and Fr Stephen),
    St Theophan writes that true happiness can only be found in the spiritual life. In that case, the pursuit of happiness is the most desirable thing mentioned in the list of inalienable rights.

  11. Albert says:

    With regard to statements by visitors, a minor correction may be in order, if I am remembering correctly from Catholic high school religion class many years ago. It is not a matter of what your visitors believe (as you said), it is what they were probably taught;namely, that Orthodox liturgies are essentially the same as Roman ones including what they called “the consecration.” Not being in communion apparently was not as significant to them as it is to you/us.

    I used to be a “them.” And I must say that the issue of schism seems to be emphasized more rigidly (almost said “stridently”–still learning about how obedience at an operational level includes respect even when you feel like a rule, or teaching in this case, is unnecessarily strict) than the interests of unity might expect. I understand the dogma differences and do not challenge them. Still, it’s puzzling to hear strong language used in an area where the people themselves, not the bishops, cannot comprehend the distinctions. Or maybe they can. For myself, I feel a great loss in not being able to share my joy in Orthodox prayer services and liturgies with my family and long-time friends, including poker buddies.

  12. Dino says:

    The difference sometimes between monastic and marital obedience can be subtle – but it certainly ‘tastes’ a bit different.
    In a monastic setting obedience to one’s Elder/Spiritual Father in Christ is intensely felt as a direct obedience to the Lord as the Elder is His ‘type’ par excellence. It can be purely felt as joyous love and devotion. Obedience to all others (brothers or sisters in Christ) can sometimes be felt more as a humility, a ministry, or a keenness and sometimes just a cutting off of one’s will.
    In marital life it can be felt as devotion, keenness and ministry of course, as well as a cutting off of one’s will. However, there is a far greater chance that one’s spouse does not share the same Faith here and is not the ‘example’ par excellence that we aspire to become like (as with an Elder). Obedience then can feel like the road to achieving the same meek heart as Him who asked we learn His meek and lowly heart. The virtue of “acceptance of what comes” is also a few steps ahead in ‘the world’ to obedience which subjectively colours life outside a consecrated setting differently.
    The greatest difference however is that as a monastic there is a far greater voluntary ascetical desire for obedience and even martyrdom (there should be); whereas in the world this is far more involuntary (at least to start off with or else you wouldn’t have selected that life but the harsher one).
    The classic patristic differentiation is that for monastics (the crucificial apostolic life) “pain” is voluntary and pleasure unintentional; whereas for lay people “pain” is obviously involuntary while pleasures is intentional – it is the reason they married in the first place…!
    Saying this, after years in the one or the other path, there emerge sometimes sad exceptions to the first and glorious exceptions to the second ‘road’, however it makes no sense to have ever chosen “the other way round”
    As St Paul says, in Corinthians -after claiming that ideally it is good for ‘a man not to touch a woman’, – his outright reason for marriage is given as “to avoid fornication, (let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband) He repeats that he “would that all men were even as himself” (“But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that”) And repeats even more clearly that his considerate yet unequivocal argumentation for someone to marry is the Maximian “pleasure intent/pain aversion” motivation by saying “if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.”

  13. William Gall says:

    Father, I tackled His Eminence Metropolitan John Zizoulas’ book “Being and Otherness” (it was a library book, I don’t have it now) and I was sure he emphasized that willing is a function of the person (hypostasis). Perhaps I’m confused, but according to my memory of the book (read a month ago) he over and over he emphasized the hypostasis as the willing subject.
    I even forget the significance of the difference. I read “Being and Communion” as a catechumen 14 years ago and was disturbed by some things. So I read that again, and decided to read Being and Otherness as well.
    I understand better now how Christ’s hypostasis was not a merely human hypostasis, and that it is open to our abiding in Him as the Body of Christ. I really believe Protestant Evangelicals, which I had been as I read Being and Communion the first time, are someone Nestorian in their view of Christ
    But I’ve been more practical than theological for many years and so Being and Otherness has not, overall, been digested in terms of its overall significance for me, other than what I am bringing up about nature and hypostasis.

  14. Margaret says:

    Thank you for this post! I so need to read and re-read and will do so. About 10 years ago, I think before I and my family became Orthodox Christians, we were Anglican and a friend came through town and stayed with us. This man had been an Anglican priest and given this up when he and his family became Roman Catholic. Because he is very thoughtful I shared some of the worries I had for a dear Christian family member who was involving herself in unchristian life choices. Because I was so surprised at her choices, I shared this with him. His first response after listening to the situations was that it seemed to be a question of her obedience to Christ. What you have written here is what he meant, although it took awhile for me to figure that out. It is not as much a surprise as I have been to my own life finding out how much lack of obedience plays a role in my struggle to live in Christ!

  15. Michael Bauman says:

    Dino, Marry for pleasure. Him. Certainly an element especially when young. The centrality of that is the reason so many marriages dissolve and never really are.

    Marriage is an ascetical endeavor, not to the extent that holy monasticism is to be sure, but blessed Paul sold it short.

    Sometimes it is nice to have a shield matron in the battles of this life.

  16. Dino says:

    Michael,
    that goes without saying -viz marriage being an ascetically endeavour.
    It is the initial motif for the celibate life “for the Lord” or the married life that St Paul discloses.
    We needn’t see an exultation of monasticism as a denigration of marriage in any way!
    Besides, I cannot ever denigrate taking Holy communion as a generally scatter-minded layman from the spoon -it is truly blessed- just because partaking of Holy communion as a single-minded priest-monk, directly from the chalice, has is done differently…

  17. Jeff says:

    Zizioulas “the possibility of choice ( negation and affirmation) which defines moral freedom arises from the individualization of being inherent in the Fall , and is in fact a limitation of freedom because it rests on possibilities that are given, and consequently , constraining

  18. fatherstephen says:

    William Gall,
    Yes. I struggled for a while myself with the concept of the will as a matter of the nature. My only experience of the will seemed to be completely personal (hypostatic). And here we get much more subtle (more so than Met. Zizioulas). He writes profoundly in the matter of an almost abstract theology, but does very little with how that is actually lived. Far more in this can be found in the work of the Elder Sophrony who is highly reflective on the experiential side of personhood.

    My summary would in short say that the Will is a property of our Nature (St. Maximus), but the Nature has to be hypostasized in all things. Thus I cannot simply appear as my nature (human), I have to be a person (a human). The “personalization” of the will is not the same thing as will itself – though that’s pretty much how we would experience it. So our Nature wills what is rightly human, and it is hypostasized as what is rightly human for me (in my particular case). It is both general in its origin (Natural), and particular in its expression (hypostatic). When we are truly whole (thesis), this is experienced as a sublime peace and an all-embracing love. Elder Sophrony’s We Shall See Him As He Is and The Monk of Mt. Athos are very candid expressions of this.

  19. Dino says:

    That must be the most succinct explanation I have ever come across…

  20. Dino says:

    On a side note, those who vehemently hate Christianity know full well that it is the cutting off of one’s selfish will in order to conform to another that is the key to lived out Christianity.
    The pre-eminent satanist Aleister Crowley famously wrote on the “Law of THELEMA”. (‘Thelema’ being the ‘official term’ for ‘selfish will’ – a term used daily on Athos…)
    He calls himself and all satanists Thelemites and his commandment: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” is so famous that people wear T-shirts with it. It’s often seen as a ‘let’s party’ notion, even though Crowley was pro-pederasty (and all sorts of other practices I would not like to even mention, as well as pro-choice…
    It seems like the Modern Project which casts itself as a ‘protector of rights and choice’ is no different to the darkest of Satanism.

  21. Theodossia says:

    I would like to agree with Michael on the point he raised about marriage and pleasure.
    32 years ago, I was praying to know the will of God for me concerning marriage. I asked the advice of an elderly saintly lady who served as missionary. Her answer to me was: “if you want to get married to be happy, you will be disillusioned in the first week… your purpose should be to make the “other” happy”…
    I cherished this advice and it served us well in our marriage.

  22. Dino says:

    In this day and age, that most commendable motif to marry (to make the “other” happy) is rare Theodosia, even more rare than it has been in the past. It is such a true blessing for someone to have understood such a thing at a young age, that offering rather than demanding -(kenotic love that seeks not its own)- is the true meaning of existence.
    It is also rare for someone who has such an insight to not also desire to become a monastic in some way though.
    As Elder Aimilianos says, only someone who is psychopathic will not consider monasticism (ie the desire to be in an undistracted setting exclusively with his/her beloved Lord) after having even the briefest insight concerning His love. It is just the most natural reaction to encountering God. The exception is when His Grace inspires a young person to love and sacrifice for the Church and all fellow human beings. However, it is advisable even for this -in Orthodoxy- to be first tested through some time in a monastic setting that helps purification. As it is usual only for those that have reached the stage of illumination to be sent to ministries such as these (eg missionaries) – traditionally that is…
    Elder Sophrony as a youngster in Paris, having encountered God’s uncreated Light in great power (on the night of Pascha and for the three subsequent days) caught himself exclaiming (like Peter on Tabor) “if this is what God is actually like, I must abandon everything and go and be with Him alone immediately!”
    There are many reasons why people ‘grab the bull by the horns’ and become monastics – some of these reasons might be nothing like grabbing the bull by the horns…
    There are also many reasons why people marry. Not however because they fell in love with God above all, or because they saw deeply that everything other than Him in this world is total futility.
    The most common foundation for someone who marries rather than becomes a monastic (remember that these two options are ‘buzzing’ inside a truly believing youngster’s head- if we are talking of such persons) is certainly connected to the Maximian “sensual pleasure intent/pain aversion” motivation.
    Otherwise, if the motif is the kenotic opposite (“sensual pleasure aversion/ascetic pain intent”) then why would they not choose monasticism first?

  23. Michael Bauman says:

    Dino, you are assuming someone born in the Church in a place where there are many strong and well known monasteries.

    That is not the case here in the U.S. Even for those blessed to be raised in the Church, monasticism is a far away dream with which they infrequently, if ever, came in contact.

    For those of us who were not raised in the Church but were received as adults, often already married with children, monasticism is even less available. We were raised in a culture for whom monasticism is a relic of the medieval times that has nothing to do with the present.

    There comes a time when such a possibility no longer exists.

    All too often the idea, wrong headed as it is, that only the monastics are really Orthodox, is propagated. Is there not a place for the less intense, companionable love of a constant friend?

  24. Michael Bauman says:

    A friendship that includes the friend in everything but not with the intensity of marriage.

  25. Dino says:

    Michael,
    yes of course you are 100% right. I assume, (many of the Fathers that say these things also assume), such a place…
    However when Archimandrite Sophrony or anyone else have those experiences that initially drive them to renounce the world completely, they do not always find themselves in such places (with well known monasteries).
    When the urge is strong it can take anyone from anywhere – like St Mary the Egyptian.
    The wasteland that is modern world seems to be filling with its presence even the most remote places of the Earth lately though.

  26. Michael Bauman says:

    Yes, the darkness comes into our souls, or at least tries, wherever we are. All too often we invite it. I know that I am not strong enough to meet it on my own and so does our Lord. Consequently, He has graced me with a beautiful, God-loving woman who expects me to be her head in this earth. He provides for us and our families beyond all expectation and certainly far beyond what we deserve.

  27. Theodossia says:

    Dino,
    Even though I was born in an Orthodox family, I did not know the Church. I was involved with the Baptist Church since I was a teenager (my parents were not churchgoers). There I grew up and met the man who later became my husband. In that context, monasticism was unheard of. Our dream was to become missionaries. However, we were to rediscover the Church after many years.
    Nevertheless, our house has always been an oasis of peace for many brothers and sisters, at that time as Baptists and now as Orthodox.
    Even though monasticism is a way to give oneself to the Lord in complete love and sacrifice, I think that marriage and raising a family is yet another way (sometimes more difficult) to give oneself to the Lord and to see Him in the “other”.

  28. Albert says:

    Dino, your phrase “The wasteland that is modern world” got me thinking.

    Wasteland. Desert. OK, we’re stuck. But how about a different view: maybe, since our “desert place” is right here, we will learn to thrive in it as the fathers did–through prayer and fasting (well, not too much fasting) and through the support of a community. In fact, it could be that we need it, this modern-project, materialistic, ego-centered desert of our culture, in order to approach God without any expectations or desires (e,g., the joy that surpasses understanding,as the contemplation of God has been described, I believe.) I mean this both seriously–with reference to our churches–and as a reminder that Jesus didn’t found a monastery. Whatever the “uncreated light” experience is, I doubt that it can last, nor should we expect that it ought to. To aim for that seems almost as much an ego project as to amass a fortune.

    It seems to me that there is built-in problem in thinking (not you, me. I get caught up in this issue) that the perfection of human life is to be found in a physical separation from the world, or that feeling drawn to monastic style living is healthy or normal in a young person, in spite of some of the accounts of the lives of holy persons. To suggest so would be negating the role of God in calling people for special service. Besides, having had some experience in this general area, I think it is relatively easier to withdraw than to fight. Perhaps for some withdrawal involves heavy interior fighting I won’t deny that. But living our faith in a family or work setting– (I shouldn’t carry on like this. Talking to myself mostly. Don’t mean to argue or lecture.)

  29. Dino says:

    Theodosia,
    yes, whether we find ourselves on the scenic, winding road (driving towards the end of humble love that seeks not its own), or the direct and high-speed jet-plane route (to the end of humble love that seeks not its own) – the destination is one and the same.
    Besides, as they say, it is far safer for laymen to look up to monastics, than for monastics to envy laymen…

  30. Michael Bauman says:

    Theodossia, I agree with all that you say except the “sometimes more difficult”. The temptations and attacks that the genuine monastic has to contend with would wither me up and turn me to toast.

    The lay life is different than monasticism. Salvation and the journey to theosis are available in both but the monastic life is much more concentrated warfare than anything we in the world usually experience. Nonetheless, I have long tired of those (Dino is not one and I’ve seldom seen it here) who seem to want to build up monasticism by denigrating marriage.

    “We do pray for mercy and that same prayer doth teach us to render the deeds of mercy”

    God forgive me a sinner.

  31. Dino says:

    The issue of difficulty is interesting here Theodosia and Michael,
    based on Elder Aimilianos mainly, I shall say that it is a ‘different type’ of difficulty.
    A monk might have unimaginable temptations for the average layman (St Anthony whom we celebrate tonight famously was beaten up by demons), however his “struggle”, his everyday warfare, is generally all for the sake of getting closer to God, furthering his repentance, acquiring the Holy Spirit of humility and love (or any other similar such description). And he can achieve purity of mind…! (καθαρότητα νοός)
    A layperson’s “struggle”, his everyday warfare, is, however, for directed towards many more other things than the ‘one thing needful’ (Luke 10:42). And very often he struggles (when he is fervent) simply “not to sin,” it is this struggle which can feel tougher in the world due to living within the causes of the passions…

  32. mary benton says:

    “Obedience requires a union of trust with God in which we recognize that the direction of our life is a gift rather than a choice of our own devising. It is a movement of the heart towards God rather than an assertion of the self.”

    Well said, as usual, Fr. Stephen.

    The discussion about married vs. monastic (and what about the single life?) is being presented by my much-respected fellow readers as a “choice”. Why does one choose marriage or monasticism?

    To encounter Christ may lead one person to the monastery, another to marriage and another to a life of service – the obedience is to the gift given to the individual by God. God may reveal Himself fully to the obedient in any of these vocations.

    The call to “leave everything” is not limited to monastics, for the “everything” we are leaving behind is, I believe, the false self (ego) and its attachments. And that is what is most hard for all of us (monastic, married, single).

  33. Dino says:

    Luke 10:42 is key here. The impulsion to abandon everything for the one thing needful we see in Mary (Mary you share the name for this!) as opposed to being distracted ministering like Martha explains it all in very few words. There is little need to explain things in another way as we will only come back to this:

    Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

  34. Dino says:

    Martha and Mary obviously have always been used as the “types” for the two principle paths of Classical Christian life.

  35. mary benton says:

    Dino – I remember posting a comment here (on a different thread) on this very passage!

    I believe that we are all both Martha and Mary – we all have both work and prayer. Prayer is indeed the better part for it is the foundation of our eternal union with God; work is lesser as it will come and go with our temporal health and life span.

    Then again, what do I know? I’m just one more sinner in need of mercy. Many blessings to you.

  36. Rodger says:

    @Mary

    Ora et Labora

  37. fatherstephen says:

    Albert,
    The fathers entered the desert, not because it was empty, but there to battle the demons. Our wasteland thus resembles theirs very much. We do well to learn their way, to acquire their weapons and join in the battle.

  38. Michael Bauman says:

    I struggled unnecessarily for a long time and to the detriment of myself and others trying to decide my calling instead of just embracing where I was as husband and father. God, in His mercy, has given me a new chance. I seem to be gaining sons and brothers and sisters as well as a radiantly beautiful wife in my old age. More people to love and care for, to guide as I am can, protect if necessary and always pray for.

    God is merciful.

  39. Dino says:

    Mary,
    married vs. monastic life is being presented as a “choice” indeed. However, this is not the same as what Modernity terms choice. Pro-choice on abortion, to use an extreme example to make the point, offers a ‘choice’ where there shouldn’t be one.
    Married or monastic life is rather an obedience to the Church (nowadays even marriage -in its true Classical Christian understanding- is acquiring something of the ascetical obedience that scandalises the world concerning monasticism)

  40. LI says:

    “My” nun (:)) says, one should not “choose” monastic life in general, but fall in love with one particular monastery and join it, just as one should not marry just to please conventions or “have a family”, but for great love for one concrete person. Love is always personal, I think I read it on this very blog.

  41. LI says:

    Thus, in an ideal world, none should marry or become monastics unless Love finds them and leads them either way.

  42. Dino says:

    Choice in modernity is generally used as a license to not adhere to the past’s “principles”. That debunking of the ‘old’ in favour of ‘the new’ is exposed for what it really is in Lewis’ ‘The Abolition of man” quite well. He uses various terms including ‘instincts’ to describe the wasteland of conflicting ‘choices’, while redeploying the same terms (instincts) to describe those ‘choices’ again that accord to the eternal principles that modern choice is undermining.
    His insights are similar to St Maximus in one sense. He writes as if he has some understanding that who we really are is disclosed in our final destiny in God – even though he seems to understand this (the “logoi” or divine principles) slightly more moralistically – or at least presents it that way to his target audience.
    Compare this from ‘the Abolition of Man’ for instance:

    instinct, if you listen to it, will claim to be gratified at the expense of all the rest. by the very act of listening to one rather than to others we have already prejudged the case. if we did not bring to the examination of our instincts a knowledge of their comparative dignity we could never learn it from them. And that knowledge cannot itself be instinctive: the judge cannot be one of the parties judged; or, if he is, the decision is worthless and there is no ground for placing the preservation of the species above self-preservation or sexual appetite.
    The idea that, without appealing to any court higher than the instincts themselves, we can yet find grounds for preferring one instinct above its fellows dies very hard. We grasp at useless words: we call it the ‘basic’, or ‘fundamental’, or ‘primal’, or ‘deepest’ instinct. it is of no avail. either these words conceal a value judgement passed upon the instinct and therefore not derivable from it, or else they merely record its felt intensity, the frequency of its operation and its wide distribution. if the former, the whole attempt to base value upon instinct has been abandoned: if the latter, these observations about the quantitative aspects of a psychological event lead to no practical conclusion. it is the old di- lemma. Either the premisses already concealed an imperative or the conclusion remains merely in the indicative

    with this [my own rendering] from St Maximus’ Ambiguum 12 which is almost the answer to it:

    One who devoutly and through contemplation has come to know things as they are, and by rational will has rightly determined how to speak of them, who keeps himself unswerving in judgement; such a one has conceived the totality of virtue in one fell swoop and no longer moves towards this and that – he knows the truth. The highest passionless logoi according to which all knowledge and virtue has its being, are powers of the rational soul that are seated deep within his being, acting without conflict…

  43. Dino says:

    Li,
    that is ideal perhaps, but there is also space for the less than ideal.
    There are many who became monastics in the past through a mere calculated rational decision or even just to escape the law, yet still attained perfection along the way, despite their ‘meagre’ calling.
    Similarly, many have married not due to noble love instincts but due to little more than ‘timing’ being right, or due to a combination of very weak factors and a desire to simply “not sin” by not entering the blessed path of marriage, perhaps even a weakness in choosing monasticism. These things happen all the time. Again, they too can reach Theosis along the way too.

  44. Dino says:

    Elder Aimilianos controversially used to assert that “everyone is called to it, and everyone can become a monastic at some point in their life”, he would also say that a good (ceonobitic) monk/nun can always have been a good husband/wife. Another, audacious for some, exclamation was that “not all are capable of marrying” whereas all can make do with being a monastic.
    Keep in mind that there are many types of monastic life he has in mind, many gradations, many flavours.

  45. LI says:

    Dino, my comment wasn’t meant to come as a contradiction to yours (I just kept the page open too long without refreshing and didn’t see your posts).
    God forbid I would ever dream of contradicting an elder, especially on such topics, it would mean, sorry, folks, there are situations from where God cannot save you.
    I’m sorry my insights are limited, it is because my spiritual age is “toddler”, my default state is “Wow, God is fantastic!” and if I attained anything, then it is a bit of patience to listen to those with more experience. So I do hear you and all the rest when you say, you ain’t seen nothing yet and I nod in agreement. And I do read with all the eagerness to understand them the quotes from saints, elders and simply wise people. Keep sharing them.

  46. Dino says:

    Concerning ‘choice’ and ‘vocation’, marriage and monasticism, I’ll convey an interesting counsel of the current Abbot (Elisha) of Simonopetra on Athos.
    When Elder Elisha took office as the successor of Elder Aimilianos, he called me for a chat in his office, during an extended stay of mine there, and I obviously felt disproportionately privileged as a layman for being granted what seemed like a fortuitous, prolonged and private access to the one person an entire monastery is queuing up to have a word with. I had no questions at the time; they had all been answered by the monastery’s Spiritual Father Confessor – a most discerning Elder who is characteristically bombarded with everyone’s questions (monastics and laymen alike) at all times of day and night.
    However, the conversation smoothly moved to the topic of ‘choice’, ‘calling’, or ‘vocation’, as an agonizing dilemma in every Christian’s life, particularly when reaching adulthood. I now assume this came about after mentioning St Silouan’s first temptation as a coenobitic novice: to either go back into the world or deep into solitude in the desert.
    The new Elder’s words surprised me and captivated me with their authentic conviction:
    “The vocation one chooses is not as critical as the world makes it out to be! In fact it is easy for anyone to make a choice they regret – I could suddenly realise one day that ‘I wasn’t meant to ever become a monk!’ for example… It matters not! What really matters is what you do once you find yourself on a certain path, how you embrace the ‘appointment’ God’s providence has allowed for you – whether your thoughts tell you this is right or wrong. It is once we are walking the path that we are showered with God’s blessings– not before when we are still choosing which way to go, that could even infringe on our freedom of choice and make as blame Him later, when we encounter the difficulties that all roads contain”

  47. Michael Bauman says:

    Dino, yes, that is exactly what I found out in my life. If I had just embraced more fully the path that I was on and the crosses it gave me, well………..much more joy or so it seems.

    It is a daily thing perhaps even more frequent than that, is that not what obedience is?

  48. Michael Bauman says:

    An interesting article over on AOI that seems to speak to many of the points being raised in this series of posts: http://www.aoiusa.org/blog/leite-the-revolutionary-mentality-is-the-confusion-of-our-time/

  49. Dean says:

    Years ago I read a book written by a Presbyterian pastor. It was on the Christian life. He entitled it, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” I can now see how this was one of God’s nudges moving me toward Orthodoxy before I knew anything about it. Our life in Christ is not a sprint but a marathon as we daily die to ourselves and answer “yes” to our God in countless ways, mostly mundane, but all conforming us more and more into Christ’s image.

  50. Martha says:

    Dino, thank you for Elder Elisha’s words. When faced with a path choice in the now, of course one should prayerfully weigh what is best. But often our tendency to either dissect past choices (“Perhaps I wasn’t cut out to be a monk/Perhaps I should not have married this person”), or to agoniize over the merits of theoreticalchoices, serve to blind us to the current choice, here and now, in this moment, on this path, to serve Christ and to love with His love. Sometimes in myself it amounts to avoidance, for which I must repent.

  51. Boyd says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Sounds like you are getting at what other teachers call “non-dualism.” And the phrase “attachment to pleasure and fear of pain” reminds me of the Four Noble Truths.

    Boyd

  52. Shelley Armstrong says:

    Fr Stephen,
    Thank you once again for this series. And to everyone for their contribution. I think the desert analogy is apt and helpful for the present some of us find ourselves in. It seems an abuse of language, but it seems, in the present situation, one cannot even discuss ontological definitions or realities if they exclude anyone’s “choice” or even their opinion on what an institution should mean, without being labeled unloving or judgmental. So discourse breaks down. We go round and round. And there is no common language anymore with which to discuss ultimate things..thus the desert.
    Forgive,
    Shelley (macrina)

  53. fatherstephen says:

    Shelley,
    Sorry about your comment getting hung up in the “spam filter.” It does this rather selectively from time to time and I don’t know why. Today I have been out and about blessing homes – and only just now got a chance to clear your comments.

  54. fatherstephen says:

    Your comment is quite correct. In the present extreme of the Modern Project, when freedom and choice have simply become “silly,” any fact or ontological discussion flies in the face of “choice” (reality is like that) – and thus impinges on someone’s private freedom for the world to be whatever they choose it to be. “Silly” is the only word I can think of. As such, I experienced certain parts of the academy (where this is far more advanced than elsewhere) to just be petty.

  55. Albert says:

    Found this today;thought of you, us. Offering yet another way of dealing with “projects,” the post contains a series of twitter-prayers followed by:

    “God, be with us all, regardless of political bent, religious affiliation, ethnicity, gender, age or philosophy. God be with us in our response to others – may our hearts be for love alone.”

    (for any who like Twitter, here are samples. I was struck by how the 2nd half of each mirrors the first half, but surprisingly so. Maybe this is a new poetic form, a prayer-tweet)

    http://keepingcompany.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/wpid-screenshot_2014-01-17-10-25-22-1.png

    And – http://keepingcompany.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/wpid-screenshot_2014-01-17-10-25-57-1.png

  56. Michael Bauman says:

    Ah Shelley there is no ontology in the Modern Project only utility.

    Thus humanity is no longer of any interest. Thus we have man as cyborg interconnected at every level with the internet, consuming and being consumed.

    Ontology? How quaint. How anachronistic. How irrelevant. The future belongs to the genetically and technologically enhanced. Humanity is no longer the dominate life form.

  57. Michael Bauman says:

    Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated

  58. mary benton says:

    Michael – your 10:29 PM remark made me smile. (I used to watch TV!)

    Of course, we wouldn’t know of each others’ existence, much less be sharing our faith with one another, if we were not connected by the internet.

    One of my struggles is that I want to live a more Christ-like life that does not drown in our culture’s “Modern Project”. But how much am I be willing to give up to do this?

    Although I participate in the “modern” culture less than the average American, obviously there are some parts that I am quite attached to – such as connecting in faith with people around the world on my computer, to learn and to share.

    I value having the “freedom” to make this “choice” – and I believe it to be largely advantageous to me. But then don’t others want the same for their “choices”?

  59. Dino says:

    Mary.
    1 Corinthians 7:31
    “those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.” is key here…
    If we have to let go of these things tomorrow or at any time, we must try to be prepared to do so unflinchingly.

  60. fatherstephen says:

    Mary benton,
    It is important that we make a distinction between the Modern Project and technological advancement. They used the word “modern” to make it seem as though the destruction of humanity is also humanity’s benefactor.

    The internet, like paper and books, is simply a tool of communication. You can print the Bible or Mein Kampf. Paper is not the problem. Internet as well. I use the internet without shame or apology.

  61. Dean says:

    Dino…thanks for the quote from 1Cor. I have read it many times before but I saw it really for the first time in your post. Strange how this works but God shines the spotlight of his word upon us right where we are and at the needed moment.
    (“…a word in season, how good it is!”, Prov.15:23).

  62. Shelley Armstrong says:

    Thank you for that distinction, Father. The internet is a tool.

  63. Dino says:

    Micahel,
    you are entirely correct I fear, just consider the unequivocal statement of the “Humanist Manifesto II”:

    “…the battle for humankind’s future must be waged and won in the public school classroom by teachers that correctly perceive their role as proselytizers of a new faith: a religion of humanity that recognizes and respects the spark of what theologians call divinity in every human being…The classroom must and will become an arena of conflict between the old and new – the rotting corpse of Christianity, together with all its adjacent evils and misery, and the new faith of humanism…”

  64. marybenton says:

    Fr. Stephen & Dino,

    Thank you for your comments – and I wholeheartedly agree.

    Perhaps what led me to make the comment is that it seems that the advance of technology in general changes the manner in which society operates. It changes how we relate to the earth (the resources we use), how we relate to each other (from our individual electronic devices, dwellings, cars) etc.

    While none of this FORCES us into the Modern Project perspective, I think it can easily lead us into creeping individualism without us always noticing it happening.

    Examples of this that I have witnessed…a couple breaking up their relationship via text message…strangers “falling in love” (and abandoning their spouses) through online contacts. Technology doesn’t make people do this – but it makes it easy for people to view these as a “natural” and real modes of communication.

    Yet, as I say this, I am aware that I have apologized via text message and I have expressed anger via e-mail. While we can use electronics to communicate and understand each other, depersonalization or a false sense of intimacy may creep more and more into our consciousness if we are not alert.

    All tools are potentially dangerous, if misused. Some are more dangerous than others.

  65. Sophia says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    This is slightly off topic but has to do with healing from the passions and getting out of the pleasure/pain binary (which is very Freudian, interestingly.)

    What are the attributes of spontaneity, creativity and positive desire in terms of our nature, according to the Fathers? There is a lot of depth psychological material that talks about healing from a kind of false self (rigid, proud, self-hating, isolating, ego-centric, overly intellectualized) and a movement to true self (spontaneous, creative, empathetic, relational, authentic, more body-based) and I often wonder about similar observations in Orthodoxy? I know Fr. Thermos has written some on this, but I would love to learn more.

    Thank you!

  66. Dino says:

    Sophia,
    You reminded me of some words that address this in the Philokalia.
    The pleasure-pain duo –Freudian though it may appear – is cured by the most anti-Freudian approach possible. Pain –especially ascetical, but also whatever is allowed to befall us- is embraced like Christ embracing the Cross. Pleasure is disregarded – even the Spiritual pleasure that follows suit such an approach.
    The reorientation of our being from ego-centered to Christ-centered involves a constant vigilance against relapse which involves paying no heed to our ‘first’ thoughts or feelings (“protonoia”) whereas our subsequent ones (“epinoia”)–especially when checked against a guide- are far more trustworthy.
    It seems like this goes against ‘spontaneity’ at first, especially since it produces a kind of relentless awareness of everything that “emerges” inside of us, however, to the vigilant soul who does this, it is the ‘spontaneous’ thoughts and feelings that become cured through it first.

  67. Sophia says:

    Thank you, Dino.

    I should clarify, re the Freudian part. The (classical) Freudian view is that our nature is one of seeking pleasure/avoiding pain. I find it interesting that this is, in the patristic view, not our true nature but rather a distortion of will, and I think that many depth psychologists who do not subscribe to classical Freudian understandings would agree.

    Re spontaneity, perhaps it is a question of semantics, because what you are describing as protonoia I could imagine in many cases would be considered ‘compulsive’ thoughts, i.e. our ‘knee-jerk’ reactions, especially emotional, to things. True spontaneity, in my experience, has more a feel of being primary rather than reactive, and so somehow coming from a different source than our usual egocentrism. You can not have spontaneity without inner freedom and egocentrism curtails inner freedom, at least psychologically. (And it can also certainly try to masquerade as spontaneity in the form of ‘I get to do whatever I feel like and that makes me spontaneous’!) I wonder if perhaps epinoia would translate more to true spontaneity? Just a thought–I’m trying to learn!

  68. Dino says:

    Sophia,
    Our nature has a burning desire (its “will”) for Theosis – a “holy” will that corresponds to the Father’s will.
    (it is what our adversary exploited from the start)
    Our ‘gnomic will’, on the other hand, is our personal desire.

    How do we combine these?
    Do we seek glorification (theosis) Christ’s way, (the all-encompassing humble love’s way)? Or, say, Nietzsche’s way, (self-obssessed man’s way), our adversary’s way?
    The deification of man’s personal will in the Modern Project is evidently not unrelated to this…
    Obedience and ‘the cutting off of one’s will’ always concerns the ‘gnomic will’, it is its pedagogy, its cultivation and opening towards all-encompassing love instead of self-obsession. Obedience, (wanting another’s will) is indeed the road to this. Christ’s Cross is that very thing. He “willed our natural will (for theosis) for our sake”.

    There are of course all sorts of ways to this end. Trusting, grateful even, acceptance of the sufferings that befall us is another road to cultivate our gnomic, fallen will. Prayerful unceasing vigilance (Nepsis) is perhaps the most hands-on of all methods, or if not, it is an indispensable companion in all others.

  69. Michael Bauman says:

    Father you are one of the few who use the internet as a tool.

    Long ago in one of my college history classes the prof said a tool allows us to use it and set our own rythmn, a machine sets the rythmn.

    To expand: computers can be a tool but for many they are not. The interaction with them is too passive and the computers then change our.way of thinking.

    When you start adding in technology that is specifically designed to augment and become a part of one’s routine cognition and action and the hubris of some working in the AI field it gets scary.

    A hammer is always a tool, an automated assembly line is always a machine. Computers we have to consciously use as a tool.

  70. Neal says:

    Thank you Father for a very thought provoking post. To my mind obedience is nothing more than me choosing to obey God’s chosen destiny for my life. Paradoxically there is no choice in this. I do not choose anything about my life (gender, nationality, abilities, wealth-poverty etc). I only choose to obey God within the context He has placed me. My passions are borne out of the fact that I can see He has blessed others in a way that, for some reason, He hasn’t me. This envy then makes me strive to be something other than what He created for me. I have to make peace, for example, with the fact that He gave me a body that will create constant pain whilst others live in health and vigour. In these moments my gnomic will must seek submission to His will and not to my desire to be like others. In these moments I have to let go of the idea that life can be enjoyable and that the blessings of this world could be mine. I think we are not driven by avoidance of pain and a drive to pleasure. I think we are driven by envy because God blesses others more and less than me. To the frail human mind this ‘unfairness’ is crushing. Accepting that we have no say in these outcomes is hard, particularly when you acknowledge that God makes some suffer intolerably and others grow unhindered.

  71. LI says:

    “There I have seen men who had spent some fifty years in obedience. And when I asked them to tell me what consolation they had gained from so great a labour, some of them replied that they had attained to deep humility with which they had permanently repelled every assault. Others said that they had obtained complete insensibility and freedom from pain in calumnies and insults.

    I have seen others of those ever-memorable fathers with their angelic white hair attain to the deepest innocence and to wise simplicity, spontaneous and God-guided. (Just as an evil man is somewhat double, one thing outwardly and another inwardly, so a simple person is not something double, but something of a unity.) Among them there are none who are fatuous and foolish, like old men in the world who are commonly called ‘in their dotage’. On the contrary, outwardly they are utterly gentle and kindly, radiant and sincere, and they have nothing hypocritical, affected or false about them either in speech or character (a thing not found in many); and inwardly, in their soul, like innocent babes, they make God Himself and their superior their very breath, and the eye of their mind keeps a bold and strict watch for demons and passions.”

    Saint John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent

    This helped me a lot through the struggle with the “why” that the mind instantly brings forth when obedience gets mentioned.

  72. Neal says:

    Also, I don’t believe there is such a thing as the Modern Project. There has always only been the Human ‘Project': the different fortunes (as set out by God’s choices) in terms of who has and who has-not. For example, I would suggest that this forum is filled with people who have been placed here by God: by virtue of where you live, ethnicity, ability, intellect etc. Someone living in abject poverty or a dictatorship will know nothing of our choices. For some reason God has chosen them for that and us for this. None of us have any say whatsoever in these matters. When viewed from this point of view we have to abandon all philosophies about real-choice and we have to acknowledge that we are made to play out God’s chosen plan for us. Our choosing is limited to whether or not we get on board with God’s plan.

  73. Dean says:

    Neal…I believe that of course there are certain things in our life that are fixed by God, such as gender, race, family, etc. However, you make it sound as if we are automatons, with very little say as to the direction of our life. Does God have a plan for our life? Yes! Our salvation…”God…not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance”(2Pet.3:9). However, there is a synergism at work between us and God regarding our salvation. One of the greatest gifts God has given us is our free-will. Perhaps this can best be expressed in St. Paul’s words, “…Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;for God is at work in you, both to Will and to work for His good pleasure”(Phil.2:12-13). I refuse to go down that road again I once trod as an evangelical, i.e., “God has a wonderful plan for your life,” and then spend the next 25 years trying to discover it! Thank God, I did finally “discover” it as an Orthodox believer. And that is being united with God in Christ (John17:20-23)…most especially through His blood and body in the Eucharist, not failing to mention also the ascetic practices of our faith along with prayer, repentance, etc. This is God’s plan for my life.

  74. mary benton says:

    Neal,

    Since I do not know anything of your afflictions, please forgive me if my comments are misdirected. I am not writing to contradict you but to share my reactions to your comments.

    Without a doubt, there is great suffering in our world and its distribution among peoples is not fair or equitable. However, I would not view this as “God’s choice”. I do not believe that God chooses or wants for any of His creatures to suffer.

    Why God allows suffering is a great mystery. While we can trace evil in our world to the fall, it does not help us understand why some people have so much more than others. Yet we can see that God does use our suffering for our salvation. Our acceptance (or “obedience”) enables that to happen.

    We have little say about what hand is dealt us in this life. But, as you noted, we do have a choice in how we respond to it. Suffering, especially in the context of chronic afflictions, can make it particularly difficult to experience joy or to know our lives as loving gift from God.

    If we believe that God has chosen inevitable suffering for us, our obedience to it is like submission to a tyrant. If we believe that God’s love for us in boundless, that He has chosen to share our sufferings and transform them, obedience is a love-act that unites us to Him and to all others who suffer.

    A momentary “yes” whispered by one in chronic pain may be a greater act of obedience than a lifetime of committed service by one who is healthy. Only God can understand what is in our hearts as we learn to give ourselves to Him.

  75. Dean Brown says:

    Neal..forgive me if I sounded harsh. I was responding to your 2nd post. Mary responded very lovingly to the pain and angst of your 1st. God bless you and her.

  76. Dino says:

    We must cultivate a fixation on God’s paternal, unconditional love for us, while also being aware that we are nought. If we do this, (even if we simply put an effort towards this when we are assaulted by thoughts) ‘envy’ is annihilated in the face of a gratitude that takes over, even if the entire world lives like kings and we are in a squalid dungeon…
    Of course, like building an Ark, this can take many years to cultivate fully – but it can withstand the strongest of “floods”…
    This is given to us by Christ Himself as a way to perfection – I am implying especially His word to Saint Silouan the Athonite “Keep thy mind in hell and yet despair not!”

  77. Neal says:

    Mary and Dean

    Thank you so much for your responses. If I’ve read you both correctly then I think we are in agreement. I don’t believe we are automatons nor do I believe in a tyrant god. I do strongly believe though that God has sovereign control over everything I began life with and that this sets us up for a very particular life. Some are born to health, love, intellect, stamina, innovation. Others are born to less worldly ability, poverty, affliction, and very little hope of overcoming these circumstances. God has sovereign control over both. Both require one outcome: salvation and the working out of hope in the image of Christ. Both are equally loved by God. I don’t believe one is better than the other but the former is certainly more blessed than the latter (from a worldly perspective). This understanding has led me to question what the phrase God’s-love actually means. On some level it must mean that the Potter has chosen on path for one piece of clay and another path for the other. Each was hand crafted in the womb by a God who knew their futures. Each has to know Christ in these circumstances. Comparatively, my suffering is little but I am surrounded by people who created by God to live in terror and pain. To my mind their journey to Christ is far more arduous. Salvation begins now, the kingdom of God has broken through into our world and exists now. But it’s a very different world for the abovementioned examples. Gods wisdom far exceeds mine and I have to submit to His plan. I also know that I need to worry less about their salvation than mine but these thoughts always lead to the debate about what it means when I tell someone they are loved by God. I don’t think I’ve ever read an adequate enough description of what that means because it is so different to different people. It always comes back to the idea that it is less about ‘love’ and more about submission. My pride and anger at inequality makes me very arrogant and defiant. I have much to learn.

  78. mary benton says:

    Neal,

    I have come to believe that the best way to tell someone that they are loved by God is this: to empty myself and allow God to love them through me.

    I may not know what form that love will take – because I am not the one directing it nor do I know what the other needs to hear or experience. The most important part for me is to be present and stay out of God’s way.

    I too have much to learn. It is easy to write these words but not so easy to live them.

    Many blessings to you.

  79. Dino says:

    Neal,
    if we defy ‘worldly perspective’ and filter what you are talking about through spiritual eyes, then the result is completely inverted. One of the best examples for this would be St Ignatius’ letter to Rome before his martyrdom.
    There, we see clearly that if “my suffering is little” as you say, I am actually less blessed because I cannot tolerate a greater blessing (greater suffering). Those “people who” as you say, “were created by God to live in terror and pain” are probably far more blessed. Keeping in mind that, as you say “God’s wisdom far exceeds ours”, let us ruminate on St Ignatius’ deep understanding of the apex of salvation: martyrdom.
    St Ignatius clearly says that he does not want “to die” when he actually means in ‘our language’ that he does not want to live…! He says he wants to be born to life when he means to be brutally and tortourously killed in the Colloseum. The list goes on:

    “Let fire and the cross; let the crowds of wild beasts; let tearings, breakings, and dislocations of bones; let cutting off of members; let shatterings of the whole body; and let all the dreadful torments of the devil come upon me: only let me attain to Jesus Christ.”

    That is true Christianity which – scandalous to the world as the Cross!

  80. Dino says:

    Besides Saint Maximus the Confessor mentioned here many times says that there are two types of temptations. Those of pleasure and those of pain. The first ones voluntary the second ones unwanted. The first ones pollute the second ones purify us from passions. So it the second ones, no matter how horrible these might seem that are the true blessings. The first ones -if given into- are not blessings, if painfully resisted, then they are. I am sure everyone knows this already though – it is basic Christianity and not just that even… It’s just that the Modern world has inverted this understanding that can even be found in ancients such as Epictetus.

  81. Michael Bauman says:

    In my parish we have on the western wall twin icons of St Symeon, the Stylite and St. Daniel, the Stylite. They were placed there principally because we had two tall narrow spaces we needed to fill with icons.

    Nevertheless, as I have gotten older and my legs and feet are in constant pain, I have taken to venerating them as I enter and leave the temple. They knew pain I am sure that makes my pain nothing.

    Also today I was blessed to see a small part of the joy in my pain because it is a little of the Cross. Certainly constant pain can grind one down and corrupt one’s soul if it is not embraced. I found the pain and the fact that it brought me back to attending to Jesus Christ preferable to my mind wandering all over.

    Next week, we will see if God graces me to be there next week.

    Glory to God.

  82. mary benton says:

    Dino-

    Though I understand the concept that you are trying to convey, I am uncomfortable with your suggestion that God’s idea of “blessing” people is to grant them much suffering and, that to be saintly, we should long for the worst possible suffering.

    Read incorrectly, this would suggest that God is sadistic and that masochism is the path to holiness. Of course, I know that is not what you mean. But out of context – or without proper spiritual guidance – one could be led to greatly misunderstanding God and subjecting oneself to suffering as though, in itself, it were a virtue.

    True obedience is to embrace what God gives me, never wavering in my love for Him. If God allows great suffering in my life, I embrace it as though it were a great gift. If God allows me a smooth path, I will embrace that as well, not fretting that I wish I could be a martyr.

    Of course, I must look carefully at the smooth path to ensure that I am not avoiding a deeper commitment and the troubles that may come with it. I also accept that being, for the moment, on the smoother path, gives me greater responsibility to serve others.

    I also accept that I am not entitled to the smoother path and it could be taken from me at any moment – and I will embrace what comes next with equal joy.

    When suffering does come, I accept it and allow Christ to transform it into gift. It becomes prayer that unites me to all who suffer and to Christ in His boundless love.

    Yet I do not strive to be the greatest martyr and wear my suffering as a badge of honor – for that too is vanity and therefore disobedience.

    To obey is simply to love God with all my heart and mind and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. And to do both in whatever state I find myself, from the least suffering to the greatest.

    Glory to God for His great love, even for me, one of His weakest children.

  83. Michael Bauman says:

    That is part of the problem trying to translate monastic discipline into a worldly life– one of the reasons I’ve never read the Philokalia. I’m not ready for it.

    To repent. To forgive. To give alms (goods and mercy). To worship, pray and love in thanksgiving for all–living as simply and generously as one can.

    I appreciate and am grateful for those monastics who go more deeply into the life of God breaking the way for folks like me but for me, standing for 5 minutes more because I want to give an offering of myself to the God who gives me everything is the best I can do today.

    His joy is still present in that. Even a little bit of His joy is intoxicating.

    7 times I’ve been blessed by it in large amounts: the day of my first marriage, the birth of my natural son, my Baptism and Christmation, the Pascha a few weeks after the repose of my first wife, sharing the cup with my second wife, standing with my God son as he was Christmated and today when I embraced my pain and stood a little longer with help from St. Symeon, the Stylite I am sure. Not out of my will either but simply out of thanksgiving.

    There is a type of pain involved in all of those events. The deepest pain also brought me the greatest experience of joy. Unwarranted gifts all but gifts for which I will always be thankful.

    If I can learn to nurture the gifts God has given me of which I am largely ignorant no tellin’ what might happen.

    God forgive the hardness of my heart.

  84. Albert says:

    Thank you, Mary. Thinking about my own easy path in contrast to the incomprehensible struggles of so many persons throughout the world has been a source of great confusion for me, and a temptation (guilt, doubt, indifference, even–incredibly–pride, in that I imagine that I could bring solace or comfort by “works” like, say, volunteering at a food pantry). Your carefully thought-out statement helps me. I plan to save it for rereading when needed.

    P. S. I don’t interpret your words here as a challenge to Dino’s about suffering–just a clear reflection on one of the greatest faith problems.

  85. Dino says:

    Mary,
    of course you are right. It is so tricky to speak of these things today without being misunderstood. It is the reason why Saints often use brief metaphors instead.
    Elder Paisios loved repeating the classic: “bitter medicines are typically far more effective than sweet ones”.
    However, it is also true that to those souls who are thirsty for the truth even if it costs their egoism, such misreadings are never trusted, is it not? For difficulties themselves to be seen as greater blessings than those things that all would agree to call ‘blessings, a greater humility is required still – a constant humble and vigilant wisdom.
    Like St Maximus and others say: one vessel becomes soft like a wax candle under the rays of the Sun while another becomes hardened like clay under the same rays. Both bitter and sweet medicines in fact can be of help, or to the detriment of a soul -depending on her receptivity.

  86. Dino says:

    Here are some words from Elder Sophrony’s letters to Russia (my translation form the original) that touch on many subjects here discussed (the modern project, calamities as necessary evils – as ‘general’ blessings)

    If Christ is not God, then we remain in the dark and it is impossible to justify God watching the endless suffering of the world. But if Christ is truly God, as we unhesitatingly believe, then no one can blame God for the evil happening in the world. Thanks to the advent of Christ we now know who God is; so we love Him and cannot ascribe to Him any blame whatsoever. Christ revealed God to us.
    … And consequently Christ (on the Cross), both God and Man, vindicates God before the world , revealing to the world the infinite love of the Father, while He also justifies man before God, demonstrating to God the Father, authentic Man – a man God needn’t ‘repent He had created” as the Genesis account says. This ‘vindication’ however, is not “legal” in ant way, as many Christians tend to think, but of an absolutely different order.
    … Nowadays the ” brutalization” of the world is taking terrible dimensions. The disdain of the authentic Christian faith has become a universal phenomenon. The word that characterizes our century is “apostasy”. So I’m afraid that only the increase of calamities can now lead the people to those sufferings that will prove sincerely critical, having the power to awaken an understanding of man’s primary nature (in the image of God). Then peace would reign on earth.
    But as long as people remain similar to wild beasts, we should not expect peace on earth. All efforts through the avenues of diplomacy and similar means to prevent the calamity of war are futile. It is primarily necessary for man to be spiritually reborn – the ‘humanization’ of this brutal world must take place.

  87. marybenton says:

    Dino –

    This is excellent – thank you. Do you mind if I reprint or share it (on a small scale, of course), since it is your translation?

  88. drewster2000 says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Another exceptional peace that greatly advanced my understanding of obedience. I especially appreciate the insight into the difference between Classical and Modern understanding of pain and pleasure.

    Thank you

  89. Dino says:

    Mary,
    of course not…
    I assume these books that are out in Russian and Greek will make it English soon since they are form the Essex monastery.

  90. jamesthethickheaded says:

    Fr. Stephen: The points you make here are good; however, odd duck that I am, and as much as every monastic I’ve read… does focus on obedience, there’s something about the context of it’s discussion here that is more abstract and leaves me uncomfortable. Not sure I know why… but if you’ll forgive me, one of the contexts re-inforcing the “modern project” and its ambivalence toward obedience has to be the Haulocaust. Now I know monastic obedience is not at all the same as “just following orders” much as you do, and we would both presume a spiritual father – even the Church is good by definition and without qualification. But there is such a thing as waywardness and we know it in so many ways in this era, and there is evil in the world… even to the point where our idealists seem unable to think of a purity. And so I’m left pondering what our “dis” of obedience means… I don’t think there are very many identifying themselves as following a “modern project” so self-consciously… but the papers are full of the dangers so that the even the unreflective “get it” this way. But looking more broadly, and allowing disorder rather than a choice to be the means of the descent you describe, does it not suggest that perhaps we done other than dis-owned obedience – that is a symptom… not the cause. For what we have done – where we’ve made choices and assumptions – is in fact something far more ponderous… that the presence of evil is so broad and deep as to de-condition any vow of obedience as capable of accomplishing good? I don’t know the answer… only that an obverse of this sort calls out in this way… suggesting how deeply this embodies a call for the Gospel, a call to a vision of Christ and the Incarnation as … well, yes, there is and can be good in the world.

  91. fatherstephen says:

    Jamesthethickheaded,
    I’m going to disagree with the widely accepted claim that “just following orders” contributed to the holocaust. Obedience was not the cause of that crime. I don’t care what anyone has said, Germans weren’t moral neanderthals. They knew damn well that murder was murder, orders or no orders. There are and were higher orders and there were plenty of Germans who resisted and paid with their lives. There was not a virtue run amok. It’s a lie and an excuse.

    I’m writing about true obedience and not a lie. An obedient life, ultimately flows “ab audiens” (out of listening). It is truly and deeply hearing God, our life, the deeper things.

    Before a German ever heard his Fuhrer, he had heard the 10 commandments in Church. It was lack of obedience, envy and a will to delusion that caused the holocaust.

    As to people “following” a Modern Project – it’s our culture. We follow it without thinking – and that’s the problem. It is what’s “common” about common sense.

  92. jamesthethickheaded says:

    Fr.

    Like that clarity – better. Thank you. Precisely.

    The point was simply that because this is the way the public thinks it knows obedience… as abuse and a lie the trick has been to cast doubt on obedience itself rather than on the persons. Maybe it helped us to “forgive” the Germans, or maybe it was just politically expedient, but the cultural sentence was to allow Hollywood to beat up on them as bad guy stereotypes for the next 100 years or so… and let ourselves off the hook. Along the way, we anointed choice by condemning Germans for failing to exercise theirs. This is our myth… or as you put it the modern myth… at least in part. And yes, I agree… only suggest it more the way you have it here… we’re not consciously choosing… it’s the background radiation – not of the Big Bang as it’s usually thought of, but our modern Fall. So if I’ve got it, seems as though you’re really pulling the string out on the (modern) Fallen Image.

    But what I meant to follow-up on was perhaps along the lines of Fr. John Strickland’s Ancient Faith podcast on what he calls “Anthropological Pessimism”… that the success of the myth is its prevalence, and the difficulty we have in isolating, identifying and addressing it… even as Christians. We don’t realize we’re in it, nor do we realize how pessimistic it is. So instead of busying ourselves with redressing our core, we tend to think all we have to do is throw up a few new curtains and think we’re done. We’re like divers thinking we’re about to do something fabulous, but as we stand on the board and they read off what we’re about to attempt, the Judges ascribe no more than a 1 or 2 (out of 10) for our degree of difficulty. The whole, the rest of the project remains fixed fast to us until we take on the rest, up the degree of difficulty to 8 or 9… by time and oblique, but consistent exorcise of our disobedience… through (as you say) listening, hearing and obeying.

  93. Michael Bauman says:

    One of the Germans (although born in Russia) who paid with his life, Alexander Schmorell, a founder of the White Rose was canonized in 2012 by the Russian Orthodox Church in Germany.

    Anti-Semitism was strong in Germany long before Hitler. He used that, he did not create that. Not to mention, one of the inspirations for Nietzsche’s nihilism was the pharisaical, lukewarm Christianity of his father and many of his fellows.

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