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The Commandments Keep Us: Some Wisdom from the Philokalia

In teaching the 10 Commandments, Christians often speak of “keeping” the commandments – but what if it’s the other way around?

The classic Orthodox collection of spiritual writings called the Philokalia contains writings from saints and monks spanning centuries.  Outside of St. Maximos the Confessor, no one contributed more to this collection than the mysterious St. Peter of Damaskos.  Little is known of St. Peter except that he was a monk, living before the hesychast controversy, most likely in the 11th or 12 century.  In his “The Seven Forms of Bodily Discipline,” he has a unique take on the commandments:

…the evil that we commit ourselves is our own responsibility and arises from our own laziness with the help of the demons. On the other hand, all knowledge, strength and virtue are the grace of God, as are all other things. And through grace He has given all men the power to become sons of God (cf. John 1:12) by keeping the divine commandments. or, rather, these commandments keep us, and are the grace of God, since without His grace we cannot keep them. We have nothing to offer Him except our faith, our resolution and, in brief, all the true dogmas that we hold with firm faith through the teaching we have heard (cf. Rom. 10:17).

Note the synergism that marks the Orthodox view of salvation.  It is only by cooperating with God than we can obey God, and we return to God our faith and will, which themselves are gifts He gives us that we might keep the commandments.

Or, rather, “these commandments keep us.”  As Chesterton remarked centuries later, doctrine and discipline are walls, but they are the fence around the playground.  They are the guard rails that keep us on the road that leads to life.

The commandments, then, are not arbitrary rules imposed on use from the outside.  They are, instead, the form that grace takes in our daily lives, a means through which God orders our lives so that we might grow in Him. As St. Paul tells the Philippians, “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13, NRSV)

Sin distorts us, our egos betray us, our hearts deceive us, but the commandments keep us. Thanks be to God.

 

 

Source: The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Volume III, p. 89 (emphasis added). The biographical information on St. Peter above comes from the introductory note at the beginning of this volume.

 

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The Thin Line Between Marriage and Idolatry

by Drew 0 Comments
ImageWeddings and Idols…closer than you might think.

One of my favorite nuggets from Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s brilliant little book For the Life of the World is the following:

“The real sin of marriage today is not adultery or lack of ‘adjustment’ or ‘mental cruelty.’ It is the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God….the family has here ceased to be for the glory of God; it has ceased to to be a sacramental entrance into His presence. It is not the lack of respect for the family, it is the idolization of the family that breaks the modern family so easily, making divorce its almost natural shadow. It is the identification of marriage with happiness and the refusal to accept the cross in it.” (90)

Schmemann’s insight is stunning, and his accusation of idolatry is not too strong. The simple definition of idol is: anything that has more importance in our life than God. In that sense, based on an unduly childish notion of “love” (so-called) that is really more like an immature codependence, there are many married folk in our world who are attempting the impossible: building a lifelong relationship on the fleeting feelings that are no more eternal than a wedding cake. Real love is work, real love is a ministry, which is why marriage is not the final stage of “progression” in a relationship but a calling to be discerned and entered into (as the old liturgies go), “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.Ask any ordinand, or doctor, or plumber: following one’s calling is both a blessing and a curse, and all vocations (including marriage and singleness) are shot through with gifts as well as costs.

Marriage is about God. From a Christian perspective, the only good reason to be married is that you can follow God and mature more as a disciple by being united in a covenantal bond to this particular person than if you were not. Faithful marriage is a form of worship to God, but its inverse – marriage (or any relationship in which God is not central) as the summum bonum (“highest good”) imaginable in life – is a hideous idol.

There is a cross in marriage, because marriage is a gift from God and God’s gifts (as opposed to Hollywood mythology or sentimental fantasy) always call us away from our natural inclinations that we might be transformed into a nearer likeness of the Image of God. The good news is always cruciform, including the good news that God has called some to embody covenant fidelity with another human being. Ordered toward God, marriage is a beautiful, wondrous mystery. Oriented towards some smaller god good – making babies, or my own happiness, or a cure for mutual boredom and loneliness – marriage cannot be the gift it is intended to be.

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Secular Worship

What does it mean for Christian worship to descend into mere secularism? According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, the secularist mindset has an inability to appreciate symbol.  This failure leads to the use of symbols as only teaching tools, a utilitarian move that ultimately leads to the destruction of Christian symbols themselves and Christian worship as a whole.  This is particularly true when one looks at the misuse, abuse, or poor celebration of the sacrament par excellence, the Eucharist:

But the whole point here is that the secularist is constitutionally unable to see in symbols anything but ‘audio-visual aids’ for communicating ideas.  Last winter a group of students and teachers of a well-known seminary spent a semester “working” on a “liturgy” centered the following “themes”: the S.S.T., ecology, and the flood in Pakistan.  No doubt they “meant well.” It is their presuppositions which are wrong: that the traditional worship can have no “relevance” to these themes and has nothing to reveal about them, and that unless a “theme” is somehow clearly spelled out in the liturgy, or made into its “focus,” it is obviously outside the spiritual reach of liturgical experience. The secularist is very fond today of terms such as “symbolism,” “sacrament,” “transformation,” “celebration,” and of the entire panoply of cultic terminology. What he does not realize, however, is that the use he makes of them reveals, in fact, the death of symbols and the decomposition of the sacrament.  And he does not realize this because in his rejection of the world’s and man’s sacramentality he is reduced to viewing symbols as indeed mere illustrations of ideas and concepts, which they emphatically are not.

It seems to me that the  elephant in the room here is the extreme anti-Catholic wing of Reformation, represented by folks like Zwingli for whom that which church throughout time and space has called sacraments are reduced, instead, to mere “symbols.”  As a professor of mine once said, “If they are just symbols, then the hell with them!”  Point being, there is no reason to make the entrance to the church (baptism) and the meal that constitutes the church and continually feeds us of God’s grace (Eucharist) such central acts of Christian worship if they are only “symbolic.” For there are other symbols.  There are simpler symbols, more relevant, more accessible, more modern and easier to market.  Schmemann concludes this section with the following:

To anyone who has had, be it only once, the true experience of worship, all this is revealed immediately as the ersatz that it is.  He knows that the secularist’s worship of relevance is simply incompatible with the true relevance of worship.  And it is here, in this miserable liturgical failure, whose appalling results we are only beginning to see, that secularism reveals its ultimate religious emptiness and, I will not hesitate to say, its utterly un-Christian essence. (For the Life of the World, 125-126, emphasis added.)

 

Note: This post was edited to reflect a corrected understanding of Zwingli within the history of the Reformation.  I had incorrectly associated him with the Radical Reformation, while he was clearly in the reformed camp.  I only meant to associate him with the anti-sacramental edge – he did go further away from Rome on the Eucharist than did Luther, Calvin, and the Anglicans  – but I had listed him in the wrong tribe.  Thanks to Shaun Brown for the correction.

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A Prayer From Libya: Dancing With the Angels

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St. Thalassios the Libyan

St. Thalassios was the abbot of an Orthodox monastery in Libya and a contemporary of the great 7th century figure St. Maximos the Confessor.  In volume II of the Philokalia, we find a stirring prayer included in his treatise On Love, Self-control and Life in accordance with the Intellect:

“Christ, Master of all, free us from all these destructive passions and the thoughts born of them. For Thy sake we came into being, so that we might delight in the paradise which Thou hast planted and in which Thou hast placed us.  We brought our present disgrace upon ourselves, preferring destruction to the delights of blessedness.

We have paid for this, for we have exchanged eternal life for death.  O Master, as once Thou hast looked on us, look on us now; as Thou becamest man, save all of us.  For Thou camest to save us who were lost.  Do not exclude us from the company of those who are being saved.  Raise up our souls and save our bodies, cleansing us from all impurity.  Break the fetters of the passions that constrain us, as once Thou has broken the ranks of impure demons.  Free us from their tyranny, so that we may worship Thee alone, the eternal light, having risen from the dead and dancing with the angels in the blessed, eternal, and indissoluble dance.  Amen.”

As a Wesleyan, I am quite drawn to the Orthodox language of “those who are being saved” (and of course, such language is Pauline also).  The emphasis on salvation as a path rather than an achievement is sadly overlooked in much of the Western church.

I also love the image of Jesus victoriously dancing after the resurrection, and bidding all to join in his “blessed, eternal, and indissoluble dance.”  I know many Christians for whom Jesus and dancing are opposites!

I was reminded of one of my favorite hymns, The Lord of the Dance, which I was blessed to hear in worship this past Sunday. No, not the Irish dancing guy.  But here are some Irish guys, not dancing, but singing it quite well:

It also seems appropriate to offer a prayer from Libya asking for deliverance from destructive passions, which have been on display so tragically in Libya and across the Middle East.  May Christ, the Lord of the Dance, free us from love of self and slavery to sin, and may he teach us instead to join in the blessed, eternal, life-giving dance.

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On Vestments and Character: Some Wisdom from the Philokalia

by Drew 1 Comment

https://i1.wp.com/photo.goodreads.com/books/1175789594l/557439.jpg?resize=229%2C364

For my devotional reading, I’ve been working through the collection of centuries-old Orthodox teachings called the Philokalia.  I was struck this morning by some words from St. Neilos the Ascetic.   He writes about the dissonance, in his day, between the holy garments worn by monastics (called the “habit”) and the life they live.  I think it has something to say to those of us who wear clergy vestments as well (even if you’re Baptist and that means a suit!).  Here goes:

Today, a person wears the monastic habit without washing away the stains on his soul, or erasing the marks which past sins have stamped upon his mind; indeed, he may still take lustful pleasure in the fantasies these sins suggest.  He has not yet trained his character so as to fit his vocation, nor does he grasp the purpose of the divine philosophy.  Already he has developed a Pharisaic superciliousness, being filled with conceit by his robes.  He goes about carrying various tools [the Bible, perhaps?] the use of which he does not understand.  By virtue of his outward dress he lays claim to a knowledge which in reality he has not tasted even with the tip of his tongue.  He is a reef, not a harbor; a whited sepulcher, not a temple; a wolf, not a sheep; the ruin of those decoyed by his appearance. (“Ascetic Discourse,” The Philokalia: Volume 1 [New York: Faber & Faber 1979], 204).

Whew.  Hard words.  Such language represents a stringent spirituality that is absent from nearly all Protestant contexts these days.  They are humbling and powerful, to me, as one who wears another kind of robe.

Peace to you today, and grace to all those who wear the robes.  May our character reflect our vocation.

 

P.S. For more Orthodox inspiration, check out Ancient Faith radio.  It’s like K-Love, except it is spiritually profound and has theological integrity.

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