Friday, June 29, 2012

What is meant by the wrath of God?

I have always wrestled with the term "wrath" knowing that God is unchangeable and a loving God. How can I understand this term and still believe in a loving God?

Fr Patrck Reardon gives a good perspective on this term in his commentary on Psalm 6 (LXX).
Divine wrath is not some sort of irritation; God does not become peeved or annoyed. The wrath of God is infinitely more serious that a temper tantrum. It is a deliberate resolve in response to a specific state of the human soul. In Romans, where the expression appears twelve times, the anger of God describes His activity toward the hard heart, the unrepentant, those sinners who turn their backs and deliberately refuse His grace...
Wrath then is what God directs toward the heard hearted, those who consciously reject God. Yet he says it is not that action of a God who is annoyed or peeved. So what is it?

Paul in Romans 1:24-32 tells us that wrath is where God gives up on us.The Holy Sprit is no longer active in us. We become dead to God. Our conscience becomes what we make it to be.

Fr Patrick writes,
Three times in this passage, the Apostle Paul pounds the point home: "God gave them up..." (Rom 1:24, 26, 28). In this consists the wrath of God: that He turns man lose, that He lets man go, hands him over, that He abandons man to his own choice of evil. The full context of this passage deserves deep reflection, because the moral evils to which God delivers the hard of heart appear to be the very vices characteristic of our own times (Cf. Rom 1:24-32). These verses describe in graphic detail exactly what happens when "God gives them up," and not attentive reader of this text will fail to recognize in it a description of the world in which we live today.
He is how Paul describes the resulting condition.
And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality,[c] wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them. (Romans 1:28-32)
This is the result of God abandoning us and people acting out of their biological self-centered pursuit of self interest. If we find ourselves in this state separated from God, realizing God gave us up, knowing that He has left us to our own devices, what are we to do?

Saint Theophan the Recluse tells us that grace is not freely give to those already have known Christ, who know what life in Christ is, and have been baptized, but then chose to ignore Him.
He must give something himself first. He must still be worthy and beseech. It is not enough merely to wish; he must work on himself to attract spiritual arousal by and labor, and learn how difficult it is to acquire...He thirsts but is not given drink, hungers but is not fed, seeks but does not find, exerts himself but does not receive. Sometimes a person is left in this condition for a very long time, to the point where he feels divine reproach, as if God has forgotten him, turned away and betrayed His promise. He feels like "the earth which dirnketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it...but...which beareth thorns and briers. (Heb 6:7-8) He goes through the period of trail, and thanks to his labors and agonizing search, the spirit of arousal once again descends on him as it descends on others as a gift.

 References: Path to Salvation, pp 103-104; Christ in the Psalms, pp 11-12. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Battle With Distractions In Prayer

One of my struggles in prayer has been distractions due to thoughts that interrupt my efforts to establish a relationship with God. After many years of struggle I was awakened the other day by an article on prayer by Heiromonk Peter Seregin.  The Orthodox Word published an article on him and included his article Thoughts on Prayer (pdf).

He writes,
Sometimes it happens that a person stands at the time of his prayer rule and goes through the words memorized prayers, while at the same time various extraneous thoughts about life's affairs and plans dig into his mind and recollections, and cares attract his heart (feelings), and instead of prayer, he turns out to be engaged in something not only empty but sinful. Of course this is not prayer, but hypocritical idle talk before God.
This got my attention.  Before I was taking this issue rather lightly thinking this was normal and I simply needed to recognize the distraction and return to my prayer.  But I now realize how sinful this distraction is and that it is me who lets it continue. It is only my laziness that limits my prayer life. As I reflect on it, how could anyone not think that allowing such distraction to enter into one's mind during prayer is none other than "hypocritical and idle talk before God"? In prayer I am seeking a personal relationship with my God, my Creator, my Lord and Savior, and while doing this I let my mind wander to mundane worldly issues.  How disrespectful can I be to let this happen when at the same time I am uttering words addressed to God!!

I now know it is a grave sin I am committing.  I now have the necessary motivation to make some changes, to become a stronger fighter in this spiritual war we are all engaged in. I need to better prepare myself for my prayer.

Fr. Peter says,
This happens when, before prayer, we did not have the total resoluteness to "lay aside all earthly cares"; when the predilection for worldly and created things is dearer to us that the Lord God and His Heavenly Kingdom, to which He is calling us; when we are slothful in the labor of piety and have let our hearts slide into easy and cheap pleasures; when we have approached prayer unprepared, light-mindedly, and negligently.... Distraction is a sign of our laziness of soul and is the fruit of negligence.
I began to examine the nature of my distractions. Sometimes it was about something I had done wondering if I had done it properly.  Others were just pleasant events, still others about something I had to do in the future and had some anxiety about. Others were about issues I had with others or, in an indirect way, a judgment on what they were doing. Occasionally, it was for someone who needed prayers or had requested prayers.

Fr. Peter offers his views on the nature of these distractions:
Extraneous thoughts come at prayer for various reasons: either a person remembers something he liked, which once influenced his heart; or our  [fallen] nature, unbridled by abstinence, draws his heart to sinful daydreams.  In a word, the chart gathers vanity and iniquity into itself and gives birth to idle or sinful thoughts.
I think the phrase "sinful daydreams" fits most of my distractions.

Fr Peter goes on to say,
When the mind is united with the heart in prayer, when it is vigilant and watches over the reverence and purity of the heart, the evil spirits cannot easily sow their pernicious tares in a man's heart or entice his mind away to soaring, sinful daydreams, for the mind is then praying together with the heart....For prayer, and perhaps for good works as well, zealous concentration and constancy of soul are required..... Remember the moment that prayer ceased, and what events, activities, and experiences there were at that time. try to understand what in you conduct was especially offensive to God during that period...
It is necessary for us to be ever vigilant and to continually examine our daily behavior as it is in our daily activities that the seeds of distraction are sown.  These distractions in prayer can give us clues about what needs to change in our daily lives.  In addition we can become more resolute to fight these distractions, better prepared for true prayer, and not let distractions take us away from prayer by recognizing that when we do so, we are engaging in a most sinful act, mocking our God.

More on Orthodox prayer

Monday, June 18, 2012

St John Chrysostom on Virtue

When we normally think of virtue we tend to think of ethical behavior, following the rules, obeying the commandments. Saint John Chrysostom reminds us that virtue is much more than just being a good person living according to the rules.

He writes,

Virtue is to scorn all human affairs, to keep the mind on future realities at each hour of the day, to seek no present good but to know that everything human is a shadow and a dream or even worse. Virtue is to adopt the attitude of a corpse in regard to the affairs of this life and like a corpse take no active interest in what threatens the soul's salvation, but only in regard to spiritual things to be alive and take active interest, as Paul also said, "I am alive, though it is no longer me but Christ alive in me." (Gal 2:20)
He says, "virtue is to scorn all human affairs". What could this mean? He is trying to emphasize that virtue is not about gaining any kind of recognition in this world. Any good act we do for esteem of ourselves or others is in vain. What is essential is our love of God, and to be united with Him in His kingdom. He further says that to be virtuous we have to be like a "corpse" in regards to all things of this life. Virtue is beyond the expression of all we can gain in this life. He is saying that virtue comes when we are in union with Christ and are acting out of His love for us and us for Him. Virtuous actions must be done out of His will and not our earthly human will. Of course we must make an effort to purify our heart so that we are able to do so. Like Christ did, we too must align our human will with His divine will. Then we can be said to act with virtue. We will then act as Paul says, as "though it is not longer me but Christ alive in me." This is the idea of virtue that Saint John Chrysostom is trying to express.

Once we have gained this high state of virtuous action, He goes on to ask us to protect this virtue just like a rich person protects his material wealth.

We should guard it with great care, not expose it to the gaze of all but conceal it in the inmost recesses of our heart, and thus repel all the attacks on the one anxious to despoil us of it; in this way we will keep it intact and be able to leave this life with some resource for the life hereafter. (Homily 5 on Genesis, p 65)
Once we are able to act with true virtue then we must conceal our motivations, the source of our actions, and never seek recognition of any kind for our actions. This is a stance of humility that is essential, and, once we boast of our relationship with God, we will lose it.

Prayer is a key to developing the proper relationship with God. Prayer is to be done in silence, as an inner work. Saint John tells us the following in His Homily on Gospel by Saint Matthew.

Let us not then make our prayer by the gesture of our body, nor by the loudness of our voice, but by the earnestness of our mind: neither with noise and clamor and for display, so as even to disturb those that are near us, but with all modesty, and with contrition in the mind, and with inward tears.....
He continues reminding us that we are seeking an inner voice that comes from God. Prayer is a mystery , he says. Prayer come out of silence.

From beneath, out of the heart, draw forth a voice,make thy prayer a mystery. Seest thou not that even in the houses of kings all tumult is put away, and great on all sides is the silence? Do thou also therefore, entering as into a palace,--not that on the earth,but what is far more awful than it, that which is in heaven,--show forth great seemliness. Yea, for thou art joined to the choirs of angels, and art in communion with archangels, and art singing with the seraphim. And all these tribes show forth much goodly order, singing with great awe that mystical strain, and their sacred hymns to God, the King of all. With these then mingle thyself, when thou art praying, and emulate their mystical order.
It is prayer that we enter into the kingdom of heaven. With our minds purified of the passions of the body we can enter into this silence and truly join with the "choirs of angels." In Prayer we are called to mingle with heavenly bodies and participate in their "mystical order."

He also writes,
For not unto men art thou praying, but to God, who is everywhere present, who hears even before the voice, who knows the secrets of the mind. If thou so pray, great is the reward thou shalt receive.
More on Prayer

Reference: Homily 5 on Genesis, p 65; Homily19 on Matthew

Monday, June 11, 2012

Saint Basil on Usury and Debt

Today consumer debt is 2.5 trillion dollars indicating how far we have moved from Gospel traditions.  In Scripture we are taught not to enslave others through usury, contracts and interest, but to give those in need without expectation of return.  On the other hand we are also not encouraged to seek loans to support a lifestyle of luxury beyond our current means to pay.  But, in today's culture, we find the poor being charged exorbitant interest rates, and those with means seeking to satisfy unconstrained desires for material goods, taking on loans they often have difficulty repaying. This is a tragedy of our times.

Saint Basil the Great wrote about this some seventeen hundred years ago in his commentary on Psalm 14.
He writes:
The Lord has laid a clear command on us, saying: 'And from him who would borrow of thee, do not turn away" (Matt 5:42)... the avaricious person... does not pity one who is suffering misfortune beyond his desert; he takes no account of his nature; he doe not yield to his supplications; but, rigid and harsh he stands, yielding to no entreaties, touched by no tears, preserving in his refusal... But when he who is seeking the loan makes mention of interest and names his securities, then, pulling down his eyebrows, he smiles and remembers somewhere or other a family friendship, and calling him associate and fried, he says, 'We shall see if we have any money at all reserved.'.. he binds them with contracts.
As the poor in need of necessities seek to find means to relieve their immediate difficulty, they are faced with hard hearts, disdain, and numerous money sharks willing to extract high interest rates to capitalize on their plight, followed by unscrupoulous credit collectors when their payments falter.

Saint Basil writes:
If he had been able to make you richer, why would he have sought your doors?  Coming for assistance he found hostility... It was your duty to relieve the destitution of the man, but you, seeing to drain the desert dry, increased his need.  Just as is some physician, visiting sick, instead of restoring health to them would take away even their little remnant of bodily strength, so you also would make the misfortunes of the wretched an opportunity of revenue... Do you know that you are making an addition to your sin greater that the increase to your wealth, which you are planning from the interest? 
Christ tells us, "do good, and lend,  not hoping for any return" (Luke 6:35). When we follow this commandment we gain true interest, benefits in heaven.

Saint Basil writes:
Whenever you have the intention of providing for a poor man for the Lord's sake, the same thing is both a gift and a loan, a gift because of the expectation of no repayment, but a loan because of the great gift of the Master who pay in his place, and who, receiving trifling things through a poor man, will give great things in return for them. "He that hath mercy on the poor length to God." (Prov. 19:17)... Give the money,... without weighing it down with additional charges, and it will be good for both of you.... The Lord will pay the interest for the poor... The interest, which you take, is full of extreme inhumanity.  You make a profit from misfortune, you collect money from tears, you strangle the naked, you beat the famished; nowhere is there mercy, no thought of relationship with the sufferer...
We expected are to give freely with love and compassion to help those in need. The Lord has told us, "And from him who would borrow of thee, do not turn away" (Matt 5:42).
Saint Basil says,
...Do not give your money at interest, on order that, having been taught what is good from the Old and the New Testament, you may depart to the Lord with good hope, receiving there the interest from your good deeds, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power forever.
He also speaks to those who are not poor out of necessities but seek to gain more out of their greed or unchecked desires. Warns them about enslaving theme selves with debt.

He writes:
'Drink water out of thy own cistern.' (Prov. 5:15) that is, examine your own resources... Borrowing is the beginning of falsity; an opportunity for ingratitude, for senseless pride...  When you have borrowed you will not be rich, and you will be deprived of freedom. He who borrows is the slave of his creditor, a slave serving for pay...
He who owes is both poor and full of worries, sleepless by night, sleepless by day, anxious at all times; now he is putting a value on his own possessions, now on the costly houses, the fields of the rich, the clothing of chance comers, the table furnishing  of those entertaining....
How many men, after building castles in the air , have as their only benefit, a loss beyond measure?
We should not seek to borrow just to acquire the goods of those who are wealthier than we are as this only puts us under slavery to those whom we borrow from. This includes larger houses, fancy cars, entertainment system, stylish clothes and so forth.  Can't we see the problem this causes in the current mortgage crisis with the many foreclosures, people losing their homes they bought that were beyond their means, fulfilling unrealistic dreams, hoping for a lifestyle of those who were much richer?  Is this not the sin of gluttony, of wanting more than what we need. Why jeopardize our future, why put such undue strains on our family fearing the payment of our many creditors?  This has become a common problem adding to the anxiety of modern life and separating us from God.

The clear teaching from Saint Basil the Great is simple.  Give to those in need without expectations of return out of your heartfelt compassion for their plight and you will gain interest and repayment in heaven.  Do not borrow from others to meet your earthly desires, but instead adjust your expectations to what you can afford and be satisfied with securing the necessities of life based on what you have saved, and not some fairytale ideal of what it means to have the "good life," hoping that at sometime in the future you will be able to pay for it.  This lifestyle that has become common in this age only leads to a life biased on anxiety and ever  increasing desires.

The credit card is a relatively new phenomenon. The visa card was established in 1966 which hosted in the idea of a universal credit system with revolving accounts.  Before that loans were hard to come by and were only taken out in large sums based on collateral. But with the Banks invention of the finical instrument of the credit card, anyone could now purchase without having to repay. Initially the early credit cards required payment within a month.  But with Visa consumers could buy beyond their means and repay only a small amount each month, with, of course, a hefty interest rate of 18%.   Also, a short time later, auto loans were created with multiple year terms. Then came house mortgages with smaller and smaller down payments required, and even most recently with zero down patent!  Beware of the dangers of this system of loose credit which permeates the modern way of life. It can trap you relying on your pride, greed and unchecked desires. It undermines your freedom and can lead to  high anxiety and stressful relationships when you are not able to make the payments. Worst, it leads to conditions where you are no longer connected with God.

Reference: Homily 12 on the Psalms, Saint Basil the Great

Monday, June 4, 2012

Stillness is a Prerequisite for Social Action

Often I mistakenly think that my primary effort should be directed toward social activity through some kind of service to society when my most important task is something quite different.

Saint Isaac the Syrian says,
Do not compare those who work signs and wonders and mighty acts in the world with those who practice stillness and knowledge. Love the idleness of stillness above providing for the world's starving and the conversion of a multitude of heathen to the worship of God.
He is advising us to put a greater emphasis on an inner stillness rather than an active external life. How many of us stretch our lives so thin that we are stressed trying to balance family and social obligations. the result is that we live in stress and our minds are ever distracted by the multitude of our activities. In this kind of life where is the place for communion with God? This is why Saint Isaac puts such a high priority on stillness. It comes before and above providing for the starving and the conversion of heathen to God.

He continues,
It is better for you to free yourself from the shackle of sin than to free slaves from their slavery. It is better for you to make peace with your soul, causing concord to reign over the trinity within you (I mean, the body, the soul, and spirit), than by your teaching to bring peace among men at variance.
If we do not first work on the purification of our soul we will never have the peace of mind to know God and to truly know His will for us. If we only focus on freeing slaves, on undoing some other infringement on basic human rights, and we have sin in our hearts, our efforts will be in vane. It is only with peace in our soul, harmony between body, soul and spirit that we can act with the love that God has in mind for us.

He continues quoting Saint Gregory the Theologian,
For as Gregory the Theologian says, "It is a good thing to speak concerning the things of God for God's sake, but it is better for a man to make himself pure for God" (Orations 3, On Flight, 12).
All these efforts that we think need our attention to rid the world of evil doing are good, but there is something that is better. We must cleanse our inner being, purify our soul, so we can partcipatte in the divine union with God. From this we will become the kind of servants of God He intended for us to become. In this way we will receive His saving grace.

Saint Isaac says more,
Love uncouthness of speech joined with knowledge from inner experience more than to gush forth rivers of Instruction from the keenness of your intellect and from a deposit of hearsay and writings of ink. It is more profitable for you to attend to raising up unto activity of your cogitations concerning God the deadness of your soul due to the passions, that it is to resurrect the dead.
Its not our elegance of speech that is important but the knowledge we can gain from an inner experience of God. The Fathers tell us that it is from this that comes true wisdom. Often our own cleverness sounds good, our projects to do good well intended, but in the end they spreads ideas that mislead others or cause even greater strife. It is better, as Saint Isaac tells us, to link our minds with a contemplation of the kingdom of God, to practice stillness. This is even better than to "resurrect the dead."

I ask for myself, let me take from this bit of wisdom from a great Saint of our Church, to guide me, helping me put my focus on gaining stillness in my mind and heart with a constant focus on God, seeking His education.  Let it help me set aside my own egocentric notions that come from my own intellectual activity and self-contrived social good works. Let me let my works come naturally from a soul that has been purified along with a will that is united with the will of God. Let me learn to practice stillness.

Source: Homily 4, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, p 144-5.