Sunday, March 13, 2011

Clearing the Decks

To know oneself is a miracle greater than raising the dead.
 - St Isaac the Syrian

Only Christ is the End; everything else is a means. If we approach Orthodoxy looking for anything but Christ - well, we might find it; more likely we won't, but it won't satisfy in any case.  If, on the other hand, it's Christ we're seeking, we'll certainly find Him, and we'll certainly suffer. So, first of all, we have to be honest about what it is we're really looking for, and then we have to be prepared to pay the price.

If anyone is seeking simply to exchange one system of ideas for another, possibly more coherent, less problematic system, he needn't waste any more time following these reflections.  Christianity is a Life, essentially - a life that must be lived if we're to know it for ourselves - and we have to know it for ourselves for it to save us.  Repeating second-hand formulations, acquiring a "correct" apparatus, won't suffice.  Ortho-doxy, "right-glory" is "a human being fully alive" in Christ (St. Irenaeus). It is nothing other than recovery of the "image and likeness of God" by participation in the death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus.  It's quite possible that this doesn't interest us at all, and that we'd really rather have "religion" instead...

Four years ago, a kind Anonymous commented here as follows:

 If you can live a proper Christian life within Rome, why leave? And if you can't live a proper Christian life within Rome, might the solution be found not in Byzantium, but rather by examining yourself?  I have lately stood often at that quayside, and looked out at the sea. But to sail away is merely to turn my back on the problems I have here, and now; and my greatest fear is that I'll find them on the other side.
 This is absolutely right, I think.  This is the question that must be confronted as the basic pre-condition of boarding.  Attempting to get anywhere by grappling with "big ticket" issues in theology and ecclesiology, in the absence of a ruthlessly honest engagement with this question, is insane.  But how on earth are we to get at the truth, through the thicket of vanity, ignorance, passion, misapprehension and self-deception?

The answer, I believe, is to do as follows.  It is distilled from a riveting lecture by Fr Thomas Hopko (the link to which I shall post in due course, when we've got several other issues out of the way).  I think that anyone who makes a serious attempt to follow this "Twelve Step Programme" will find the answers he needs - or, at least, the equipment he needs realistically to address the questions.  In fact,  this is nothing other than the permanent, perennial pre-condition of an authentic spirituality, which all of us are required to renew, daily and hourly, to our last breath on Earth.  This "never stops":

  1. We must really desire the Truth, and we must be willing to do whatever is necessary.
  2. We must be hungry and thirsting  - we must pray, in other words, for illumination, begging for God as He really is, and not some metaphysical construct or pious fantasy.
  3. We must be reading the New Testament, constantly; "not the Philokalia, not the Typikon, not the Canons, not The Rudder - the New Testament Scriptures." What we don't understand, we leave for the time being.  What we do understand, we put into practice.
  4. We must go to Church.  We must not, at this time, chant or serve or concern ourselves with anything other than standing there and being immersed in the Divine Liturgy.  "If you feel like you're gonna throw up if you hear one more "Lord, have mercy!", throw up! - but stand there and let it lacerate you!"
  5. We must not tell any lies. We must not harm anyone.  On the contrary, we must be kind to, and forgive, absolutely everyone, starting with those under our own roof.  We must try regularly to do something good for others, without anyone knowing.  If we have a little extra money, we should give it away. 
  6. Unless we are married we must engage in absolutely no sexual activity - "not with yourself, not with the computer - not with anything".  If we fall, we get up again immediately, say "Lord, have mercy on me" and begin again.
  7. We must not get drunk and we must abstain from bad food altogether and rich foods on a regular basis (Wednesdays and Fridays, usually) - we must begin to fast, in other words.
  8. We must practice silence for at least 15 minutes a day - not theologising or fantasising or "thinking" at all - when thoughts intrude, simply pushing them away; if they involve persons, commend them to God; and  in general we must try, as far as possible without annoying others, to be quiet - not to talk much, and certainly not to chatter.  We absolutely must not pretend at this time to teach, argue about, or formulate theological views.
  9. We must do our work, whatever it is, conscientiously and to the best of our ability, living in the present moment and not worrying about the past or the future. We must aspire to be rooted, not moving impulsively or precipitately.
  10. We must find somebody we can trust and discuss our lives frankly with them, dealing honestly with our parents, our childhood, our relationships, our religion, our culture.  We must not, however, discuss in detail sexual matters, or other people.
  11. We must be honest in confronting addictions and compulsions - alcohol, drugs, pornography, rage, "religion" (on which more subsequently) - in order to be delivered from them. 
  12. We must be ready seek help without shame or hesitation.
So there it is.  Broaching the Philokalia, or forming views on hesychasm or the filioque, or theologising in any way whatsoever, if we haven't at least embarked determinedly on this essential work of purification, is delusional and a waste of time, if not worse.  This is what we need to do before anything else - and if we do it, and keep doing it until the end, perhaps we won't have any more questions.


Anonymous said...

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.
Hide Thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy holy Spirit from me.

Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, and uphold me by Thy generous Spirit.

*Then* will I teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall be converted to You.

Anagnostis said...


Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Paul Knight said...

I would like to know more about what you mean by silence, and what are "bad foods"?

Anagnostis said...

"Bad foods" is a nutritional category, not a legal one: crap, junk food, the stuff that makes you feel "bleugh...I wish I hadn't eaten that". There's an element of the subjective here, of course, but in general, whatever you know instinctively to be garbage, and whatever will certainly harm you if you rely on it.

Silence: essentially, learning to still the ceaseless racket of the mind. If you try what Father suggests (15 minutes every day being quiet and still and "pushing away" the thoughts as they come) you'll quickly learn just how noisy and chaotic the unhealed intellect really is. Learning to keep it still is the practice of silence.

At another level, this involves custody of the mouth, and curbing the tendency to opinionise or prattle.

"Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach" - St Anthony the Great

Anagnostis said...

To return to "Anonymous's" crucial question: is it not possible to practice all of this within Roman Catholicism? - of course it is. It's nothing other than the ABC's of basic Christian spirituality.

However, the questions that brought us to the point of departure are not going to un-ask themselves as a consequence; rather, an authentic engagement with the questions becomes a realistic possibility. Otherwise, not.

Anonymous said...

Junk food can be classified as anything that has more ingredients in it than you can remember without looking again at the label; food that isn't really food, in other words, but just processed mulch flavoured to taste like food.

At the risk of departing slightly from Fr Thomas' intentions, silence of the mind can be achieved through the Jesus Prayer. However, it could be said that the Jesus Prayer requires a mind that is already still for it to be in any way useful.

Paul Knight said...

Thanks. That makes things clearer.

sortacatholic said...

Linked to here. All of what you say is true.

I am still a Roman Christian, but I know that the novus ordo has lost its way. It has "sold out" to academic and social scientific notions of what Mass should be. Mass is never a "should be". It is the Holy Sacrifice, the very entrance of our Creator into his Creation because we must die to Christ to live in Christ. We should desire nothing less than its orthodox and reverent celebration.

Pray for me a sinner, as I will pray for you. Pray for the integrity of the western Church.

Anagnostis said...

Sortacatholic, thank you for comments and especially for your prayers, which are warmly reciprocated. It's my conviction that the western church lost its integrity over several centuries, so that what remained of it by 1970 crumbled at the touch. More of that later, perhaps...

Joe Magarac said...

It's my conviction that the western church lost its integrity over several centuries ...

It is my conviction that the western church never had any integrity at any time. St. Peter was a traitor, remember? And not the only one.

I don't have any integrity, either. So I've stayed a Novus Ordo Roman Catholic since birth.

Elizabeth said...

Anagnostis, I followed you here from a Reluctant Sinner and just wanted to say that this is a brilliant post. I'm definitely going to add your blog to my regular reading list.

Anagnostis said...

Joe -
Integrity doesn't mean "perfection" - it just means not having to lug around a pile of extraneous apparatus in order to make something workable.

gallitzin said...

Just came across the blog; interesting, still don't know quite what to make of it. I don't do too well on this list I'm afraid, probably five of twelve. Dismayingly I've gone backwards on some things since becoming a Christian, but hope springs eternal.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. You are right as to the fact that if we do not attempt theosis, or purification everything else is useless. However, being a member of the True church, and having the "correct", true faith (Orthe Doxa) is a pre-requisite for salvation. So I think that knowing what, why and who about the Filioque is important, without forgetting of course that getting the dogma right, does not save you...