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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Liberation of the Will for Love and the Service of God


St Paul is disarmingly frank when he speaks of his own spiritual struggles in relation to his own conflicted will.  In Romans 7 he laments his condition in these words:
"For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God-through Jesus Christ our Lord!"  (Romans 7:14-25a)

Further clarity in these matters may be attained by consulting St Maximos the Confessor.  In his teaching the human will has its own true nature, its logos, which has kinship with the Divine Logos by virtue of our creation in the image and likeness of God.  Additionally, humans have a tropos of their will, a mode of appropriation of the logos specific to each person.  As a result of the disobedience of our First Parents, our perception of our true nature has been corrupted, but this is not a corruption of human nature itself, but rather of its faculties leading to a conflicted or gnomic will.  Bishop Irenei Steenberg has commented on this as follows:

The elaboration of this notion of tropos led Maximos to a term with which he is now often associated: gnomi, or inclination. Each personal hypostasis, in freely choosing from the apparent goods before it as an expression of its own tropos, suffers from certain inclinations as to which choice it might make. Ideally, the personal tropos would always freely choose that which was in actuality the proper good, that which is in alignment with the logos and thus with the will of God. But the result of the Fall has been an effective corruption of the perception of this good: humanity is not always able to truly see its own logos, and thus the true good which it ought to choose. The result is the gnomi, or the personal approximation to the good that an individual makes via his or her inclinations.  (Bishop Irenei Steenberg)

In Christ there is no gnomic conflicted will.  His human will was entirely at the disposal of his divine will, a reciprocity unimpaired on account of his sinlessness. His struggles to do the Father's will in the desert temptations and Gethsemane were genuine struggles but not arising from a compromised will but rather showing the human cost of a direct engagement with the devil, manifest in the natural and human needs of hunger and the feelings of loss and even abandonment in his Passion and Death. 

"The importance of this concept in the Christological understanding of [Maximos] the Confessor cannot be overstated. Christ, as fully human, did fully possess the natural human will. Yet the uniqueness of His personal hypostasis-that of the incarnate Word by which He was also fully divine-allowed Him to overcome the human disposition (gnomi) toward sin. The 'deprivation of knowledge of the good,' inherent in the fallen human condition, was overcome in the person of Christ. In other words, Christ possessed the full logos of human will, but not the gnomi that is the result of the misused and misguided tropos." (Bishop Irenei Steenberg)

How then can our wills be set free to serve God and for salvation?  Here again we echo in our own lives and experience the cry of St Paul:

"O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God-through Jesus Christ our Lord!"  (Romans 7:24-25) 

The precise means by which we may be delivered is an urgent daily question for all of us.  We need a perfect example of this liberation process so that we might learn from it.  We also need practical instruction on how we can ready our wills to be capable of that harmonisation with God's will-that great synergy of wills, human and divine that brings salvation to us and to many in the mission of the Church.  Our search for this purification both begins and ends with the Theotokos herself.

St Irenaeus of Lyon explains how the Virgin's obedience has undone the effects of Eve's disobedience:

That the Lord then was manifestly coming to His own things, and was sustaining them by means of that creation which is supported by Himself, and was making a recapitulation of that disobedience which had occurred in connection with a tree, through the obedience which was [exhibited by Himself when He hung] upon a tree, [the effects] also of that deception being done away with, by which that virgin Eve, who was already espoused to a man, was unhappily misled — was happily announced, through means of the truth [spoken] by the angel to the Virgin Mary, who was [also espoused] to a man. For just as the former was led astray by the word of an angel, so that she fled from God when she had transgressed His word; so did the latter, by an angelic communication, receive the glad tidings that she should sustain God, being obedient to His word. And if the former did disobey God, yet the latter was persuaded to be obedient to God, in order that the Virgin Mary might become the patroness of the virgin Eve. And thus, as the human race fell into bondage to death by means of a virgin, so is it rescued by a virgin; virginal disobedience having been balanced in the opposite scale by virginal obedience. For in the same way the sin of the first created man receives amendment by the correction of the First-begotten, and the coming of the serpent is conquered by the harmlessness of the dove, those bonds being unloosed by which we had been fast bound to death. (Against the Heresies 19:1)

This virginal obedience of the Theotokos enables our salvation at the Annunciation, but here there arises a great dividing issue between the now heterodox Christian West and the Orthodox Catholic Church. Simply stated this question is: HOW did the Virgin become full of grace? …. Only by answering that question can we learn how we also might become full of grace, learning how to consecrate our wills wholly to God as she did.  

In other words, how did the Virgin deal with her conflicted, gnomic will to become pure and immaculate, totally obedient to God and upon her death to be the first to attain theosis in her crowning as the Queen of Heaven?

The answer of the heterodox Christian West focuses on their handling of original sin and its impact on human will.  Those following St Augustine's teaching in his controversy with the heretic Pelagius could not accept the possibility that anything other than grace miraculously supplanting human faculties could ready the Theotokos for her role in our salvation and, additionally, the appropriation of her own salvation.
  
After the Franciscans Duns Scotus and William of Ware first brought this issue into sharper focus in the west, and notwithstanding strong initial opposition of the Dominicans, the late western Latin tradition embarked on a centuries long progression towards the formal promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin in 1854 by Pope Pius IX in this definition:

"We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful."
Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854.

According therefore to the late Christian West, the Theotokos could not have freely assented to the will of God at the Annunciation without having been conceived free from original sin and subsequently BORN a spotless, immaculate, pure and sinless woman, entirely without a gnomically compromised will.  

In this understanding, the Virgin can offer humanity nothing by way of example, consolation and hope in the exercise of our will since her humanity is from the beginning fundamentally different to that of our own.  Her preparation and ascetic struggles in the Temple at Jerusalem turn out to be entirely unnecessary and have no impact on her purification which is already intact.

Roman Catholics sometimes defend their dogma by claiming that St Gregory the Theologian taught that the Virgin was prokathartheisa (pre-purified) before the Annunciation.  However, at no point does St Gregory identify precisely when this happened, so it is an unacceptable jump of logic to insist that this only happened at her Conception when quite clearly it is St Augustine's understanding of original or ancestral sin which is driving these deformations of Christian anthropology.  

For most Protestants of course, Mary can never be pure and immaculate.  Her obedience is simply that of a sinner (and always a sinner), enabled only by divine and prevenient grace without, necessarily, any inward transformation.  This, we Orthodox reject as well, since purification is indeed required of those seeking to do God's will wholeheartedly and with increasing degrees of freedom and joy. Here then is the very trajectory of salvation and theosis.  

Our wills then are not insignificant or necessarily contrarily disposed to God's will.  The gnomic impairment of our wills is not the final word in the scheme of salvation.  We can change.  We can be set free.  The tragic and despairing attitude of the late and heterodox Christian West to the role of our sanctified wills leaves humanity without anything more than necessary miraculous deliverance from the corrupted ego (applicable only to Mary in her exceptional humanity) or a joyless submission to the will of God, in which we cannot take any true and free delight, bogged down as we always will be by the internal conflicts of a fallen nature.  Where is the victory and deliverance of which St Paul speaks in any of this?  I cannot find it.

Finally, we need briefly to consider how we ourselves might be purified to do God's will with a free and joyful heart, following in the grace-full steps of our Lady.  "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."  (Matthew 5:8)

Everything that God has provided for us in his divine solicitude and love is orientated towards making this necessary purification possible.  Fasting, noetic prayer, alms giving, loving our enemies and pursuing justice are for us a daily crucifixion leading to resurrection joy and hope, not only for us but also and selflessly for the whole world.  By following in this path in the Church, as Our Lady did in the Temple in her youth and subsequently in the service of her Son, we also can, potentially at least, achieve that purification that will lead to our crowning in heaven with her and, thereby, the redemption of the Cosmos itself.  In the chapter of Romans that follows his autobiographical lament, St Paul moves on to the glorious hope of what a perfected humanity can achieve, which is no less than a new creation, a new birth for all, beyond the sufferings and struggles of those who through the synergy of their wills and God's will are called to bring this about.  This must always be the vision and hope of the Church as she seeks to bring the whole created order freely and joyfully into the Kingdom of God.

"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labours with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with perseverance."  (Romans 8:18-25)

Let us persevere together then toward the glory that God wishes to reveal to each one of us.

Fr Gregory Hallam
9th March 2019
Cheesefare Saturday

Book Review: "The Sweetness of Grace"


BOOK REVIEW

St. John the Baptist told us that Jesus Christ would “baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3.11). St. Luke confirmed that reality (Luke 3.16) and told of “tongues as of fire . . . resting on each one” who had gathered in the house in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2.3). 



Of course, throughout the Old Testament. fire had long been a sign of the divine presence, especially with Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3.2), “the pillar of fire by night” that guided the Israelites in the desert (Exodus 13.21) and the “consuming fire on the mountain top” when Moses received the Ten Commandments from God (Exodus 24.17). But what precisely does this fire have to do with us today as Orthodox Christians?
        A recent book from Ancient Faith Publishing by Presbytera Constantina R. Palmer, The Sweetness of Grace: Stories of Christian Trial and Victory, reflects on how we might each experience this fire, not only in baptism, but throughout our lives. The author is the wife of Father John Palmer, serving at St. John’s in Newfoundland, Canada. Her frontispiece starts us on our journey of faith and fire:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba, as far as I can I say my Little Office. I fast a little. I pray. I meditate. I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do? Then Abba Joseph stood up, stretched his hands towards heaven and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said to him, ‘If you wish, you can become all flame.[1]
Presbytera Constantina dedicates her book “to all the struggling and holy monastics, priests, and lay people who, like Abba Joseph, showed me by means of their own bright and brilliant example, that if only I wish, I too can become all flame.” That possibility is open to any of us Orthodox Christians who wish to “become all flame.”

        The author’s approach to faith and fire and living our lives in complete unity with Christ and His Church is set out in eight stories, each linked to one of the Beatitudes. She structures the book on the words of St. John Chrysostom that “in the Beatitudes Christ not only gives us a perfect guide to the Christian way of life, but He forges a gold chain, demonstrating that each virtue, each beatitude, has a foundation in the one preceding it:”
Thus, first, he that is humble, will surely also mourn for his own sins: he that so mourns, will be both meek, and righteous, and merciful; he that is merciful, and righteous, and contrite will of course be also pure in heart: and such a one will be a peacemaker too: and he that has attained unto all these, will be moreover arrayed against dangers, and will not be troubled when evil is spoken of him, and he is enduring grievous trials innumerable.[2]
Reflecting on the beatitudes, Presbytera Constantina adopts a consistent approach in all of her eight stories: “It is through clinging to Christ in all we do that we sow genuine seeds, in our relationships and in the world around us. Sowing is all we can do, all that is asked of us. God reaps.”[3]
        Despite having a Masters Degree in Theology and being married to a Greek Orthodox priest, Presbytera Constantina sees herself not as a theologian, but as a storyteller. She calls her book The Sweetness of Grace
. . . because I feel this title captures the one element of Orthodoxy that does not change, whether one lives in Asia, Europe, or on a Canadian island. Whether one is a priest, monastic, or layperson, the sweetness of grace is offered to us all: through the trials, through the victories, we struggle to acquire and hold onto it, and when we taste it, we want to share that sweetness with others. By sharing these stories I hope to share the sweetness I was blessed to taste.[4]
My own experience is that she succeeds in her quest. However, she confronts every reader with a considerable personal challenge:
These stories are meant to remind us that the rewards for fighting ‘the good fight’ (1 Tim. 6.12) are very great. We are given the means to become saints; the sweetness of grace is offered to each one of us. But I also hope these stories highlight that the onus is on us. The medicine is there for the taking; the question is, will we swallow it? Will we do what is necessary to become receptive to His grace? Will we become poor in spirit, meek, pure of heart, peacemakers? Will we not only read the Gospel but live it and allow the light of Christ to shine through us?[5]
In other words, we each have a choice: face the challenges of life that come our way in the different seasons of life with the Lord, our families, our work and our friends (or even enemies) or avoid and deny any problems that arise.
The limited space available for this book review allows for only one example: “Blessed are the pure of heart for they shall see God.” Presbytera Constantina stresses that we must each “watch and pray lest we encounter temptations and unwittingly welcome them into our heart.”[6] Her stories about this sixth beatitude focus on her time at the monastery in Athens founded by St. Porphyrios, but she links her experience there to earlier insights she and her husband had gained in their travels, reading and prayer. A few minutes after entering the monastery, she was introduced to Sister Gerontissa who looked at her, and with the gift of clairvoyance and prophecy informed Presbytera Constantina: “Don’t worry, everything will work out, and you [have chosen] a good [husband], too.” And Sister Gerontissa was right with both insights.[7] 
Presbytera Constantina was not overwhelmed by being with someone with the gift of clairvoyance and prophecy. Rather, she cites the advice of Elder Epiphanios of Athens, who was asked “Elder, have you ever seen a vision?” The elder replied: “No, my child, neither have I seen a vision, nor do I ever want to see one. All that I want to see are my own sins.”[8] Presbytera Constantina reflects: “The pure of heart see God; those of us with impure hearts should seek only to see our sins, since it is this sure path that will lead us to gift of true clairvoyance.”[9] This “ability to see spiritual realities [is] something truly only the pure of heart have the ability to do.”[10] A good example of Presbytera Constantina’s insight would be the ability of Jesus Christ to see Nathaniel approaching Him, and say, “Behold, an Israelite indeed in whom [there is] is no guile” (John 1.47).  
The goal is clear, but the personal path for each of us toward the goal of being fully united with Christ is unique. Presbytera Constantina reflects that:
We were all created in the image of God, but since the Fall, it is only through the grace of God—combined with man’s ascetic struggle—that we can become ‘in His likeness,’ as we were meant to be, and as the first-created man was fashioned. Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos wrote, ‘When, through personal struggle and mainly by the grace of God, he attains the likeness [of God], then he is an actual person.’[11] Namely, when a person has become transformed by grace, then he becomes a true person in both the image and the likeness of God.[12]
As always, God’s grace and our own efforts work together. Both are necessary to become pure of heart.
        Not only in considering this sixth beatitude, but throughout the book Presbytera Constantina remembers the words of a professor of theology who explained that “a person will [seldom] make a mistake in theology if they do not first make a mistake in their moral life.” She reminds us that: “It is not enough for us to hold intellectually to the true Faith; we must live well morally in order to safeguard our faith. We must avoid being led astray in our personal lives so we won’t be led astray in our spiritual lives.”[13]
        It is Sister Gerontissa who informs Presbytera Constantina of an important sin: she was judging others too much and had become “a judgmental person.”[14] This was an important insight which Presbytera Constantina came to accept, but only after experiencing a deeply wounded ego which stung for three days. It was another nun, Sister Sarah, who helped her to see that “sometimes it’s difficult when God reveals who we are . . . [so] that’s why God slowly lets us see who we really are.”[15] Presbytera Constantina concludes her reflections on the sixth beatitude with the goal that “I hope and pray that through Gerontissa’s prayers I may begin the process of rooting out the passions in me that cause so much harm to myself, not to mention the harm they cause others.”[16] So may it be for all of us, whatever the different sins and passions that need to be rooted out of each of us. Amen.                                                                                          Father Emmanuel Kahn
                                                                              

                       


[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), p. 103.
[2] Homily on Matthew 15, on the web at: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/200115.htm ; and The Sweetness of Grace, pp. 10-11.
[3] The Sweetness of Grace, pp. 7.
[4] p. 11.
[5] pp.11- 12. The underlining is not in the original text.
[6] p. 177.
[7]  p. 180.
[8]  p. 198.
[9]  p. 198.
[10] p. 204.
[11] Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers, trans. Esther Williams (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1994), p. 162. Cited in The Sweetness of Grace, p. 193.
[12] p. 193. Here, as in many other places, her stories include numerous miracles which limited space does not permit to be included in this book review.
[13]   pp. 183-184.
[14] p. 204.
[15] p. 205.
[16] p. 207.

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