A Monday of a new year. A good time to take a closer look at the past and to plot a tentative course for the near future. And while looking at the past, I came to the realization that it may be necessary to examine the very basis of writing in general and theological writing in particular. I will try to explain.
Why do people write? I imagine that it used to be the case that people wrote because they had something to say. Nowadays, however, it is very difficult to answer this question. Some appear to write because they must–whether for a class they are taking, or for a conference in which they have been asked to participate, or because they hope to get paid for their labors, or for some other such reason. But what if all of these reasons suddenly disappeared? Would many of us still write? Even more importantly, do many of us actually have anything to say?
Too often, much of modern theological writing seems to be a regurgitation of someone else’s writing. To use an example from some of my previous writing, topics such as “Desert Father N. on the Raising of Children” come to mind. First, the sheer absurdity of the topic does not seem to raise too many eyebrows these days. “The Professional Cello Player on the Practical Aspects of Brain Surgery.” Why would anyone want to know what a cello player thinks about brain surgery? Second, if anyone wants to know what some author thinks about any topic, would it not be best to study the works of that author? What exactly is the purpose of reading someone else’s view on the views of someone else? I know, I know: “In partial fulfillment of the requirement for…”
Furthermore, nothing of significance or consequence is added to the sum of human knowledge when I express my views on someone else’s views and prove my point by liberally citing the original text. Is it that I do not believe others to be capable of reading the text? Is it that I do not think that others can comprehend the text and thus require my predigesting and regurgitating it for their benefit? Is it not too presumptuous of me to tell other literate, educated, reasonable and intelligent adults what some very famous author wrote on any given topic? Why not let them read the text and judge for themselves? I know, I know: “In partial fulfillment of the requirement for…”
Of course, this is not to belittle the idea of the Great Conversation. However, the very culture of Orthodoxy seems to stifle the said Conversation. The obstacle is that we are the Church of the Fathers, not of the fathers. Because I cannot presume myself to be on the same level with the Fathers, my thoughts and opinions cannot be part of their conversation. They speak as ones having authority. The most I can do is learn what they taught and regurgitate what I learnt. To build on what they have already established, to add to what they have already said, to reinterpret and re-envision their thought would be too presumptuous.
And speaking of being presumptuous, what bothered me the most while thinking about the past was the fact that I have written pieces without actually having anything worth saying. In the Gospel of Matthew (7:29), there is an interesting mention about the manner in which Jesus taught: “…taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes…” The scribes regurgitated what others had said before them, citing one rabbi, referencing another. Prophets, on the other hand, did not pepper their speech with references to rabbis; they spoke with authority: “Thus saith the Lord…” That is to say, “I personally heard from God Himself, and therefore I have something to share with all of you.” Jesus, of course, had even more authority and often said: “But I say to you…”
Using these principles in examining modern theological writing, it is painfully evident that most of us write as scribes, not as ones having authority. This is the key difference between us and the Fathers of the Church. The Fathers conquered sins and passions and then wrote about their experience of being victorious. We are burdened by sins and passions and write about someone else’s experience. The Fathers fasted and prayed, kept vigil for decades and then wrote from the position of experts on this topic. We complain about our weaknesses, make excuses, give ourselves dispensations and then tell others about the benefits of fasting by citing someone else’s examples, unable to refer to our own.
In some disciplines (albeit, not all), such a lack of personal expertise in the subject would be unacceptable. Imagine someone who does not know how to play the cello attempting to give cello lessons, or someone who cannot swim teaching swimming, or someone who has never built anything giving construction advice by invoking the names of famous architects. This would be absurd. And yet, it does not seem to be absurd when the same is commonplace in modern Christianity. Do not tell me what Desert Father N. thought about raising children. I want to know how you raised such good children. Do not tell me how Saint Mary of Egypt kept her fast; I can read that on my own. Tell me how you keep yours and what you have learnt from your personal experience.
And yet, there is one valid reason to write about things I have not personally experienced. Writing is a good way to think; it allows for the process of thinking. It is necessary, however, to be honest about this kind of writing. First, just because I think, does not mean that my thoughts are necessarily correct or that they are worth sharing with others. Second, this type of writing must be directed at self, not others. If others happen to find my thoughts interesting and choose to join in the process of thinking together, this would be wonderful. But this type of writing must never presume or pretend to be any sort of teaching. It is necessary to think, and writing is not a bad format for this exercise. But this should never be confused with the writing as one having authority which only comes from personal practice and experience or as a direct revelation from God Himself.
At the Second coming of Christ, He will reward those who fed the hungry, visited the sick and the imprisoned, clothed the naked… We all know this Gospel passage. As Christians, we try to get involved in prison ministries and soup kitchens–and this is very important and well-deserving of our efforts. But pay close attention: when Christ addresses the righteous, they are genuinely surprised: “When have we ministered to you Lord?” Do you think that anyone involved in a soup kitchen can be genuinely surprised at Christ’s words? It is more likely that they will say: “Yes, Lord, I ministered to the hungry as if they were You, and I saw Your image in each of their faces.” The ones who are surprised are not the ones who were involved in Christian ministries and visited the prison inmates because it was a Christian thing to do. They are the ones who ministered to the needy out of a profound sense of oneness with them. If your child is hungry, you feed him because you are family, not because it is a Christian thing to do. When your brother is in prison you go there not because you participate in a Christian ministry or because you enjoy visiting inmates; in fact, you may hate going there, but you go anyway–because he is family. When we treat others as family, we do not expect to be rewarded for feeding them or visiting them in prison, we do not expect any reward for this and will be genuinely surprised to get any. If we let a stranger in not because he might turn out to be an undercover angel but merely because he is a fellow human being, he is family, then we have understood that to call God ‘Father’ means to call a stranger a ‘brother’–not in a “churchy” way, but quite literally.
With the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to impose the legalization of same-sex marriage on all of the States, many people wonder how this will affect the Church. The answer is, of course, quite simple: it does not affect the Church at all in any way whatsoever. The Church has lived in the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Communist Empire, the Capitalist Empire, various democracies, monarchies, aristocracies, oligarchies, etc. and kept the truth she received from God unchanged. The Church has lived through ages of Roman immorality, Byzantine Christian state officialdom, the Middle Ages in Europe, the Muslim invasion of Palestine, the humanism of the Renaissance, the Soviet attempts to build communism, the American separation of Church and State, and many other ages and circumstances, and she still kept her truth because she received it from God. In other words, it does not matter what any given society in any given age chooses to “celebrate”–gay pride or burkas, cannabis or ecstasy, pornography or abortion, alcoholism or prohibition–the Church does not receive her truth from social movements or Supreme Court decisions. The Church receives her truth from God and that is why she is not blown in this direction or that by various winds or tossed by different currents. (more…)
It is often said that a certain portion of what we have belongs to God. In the Old Testament, we see the commandment to tithe. This commandment is interpreted in many different way by modern Christians, but all seem to agree that it is good to take some portion of what we receive for our labor and give it to God by donating it to the Church or to the needy.
Some also note that the same should be done with out time. Just as in the Old Testament the Sabbath day was for the Lord, so also Christians speak of Sunday as being the Lord’s Day thus acknowledging that a certain portion of their time is to be devoted to God. It is not my goal here to examine the exact meaning of the term “the Lord’s Day” or to elucidate the nature of tithing. This is just some fun maths.
If we treat our time the same we treat other things that we have, then 10% of it should rightfully belong to God. In a 24-hour day, that is 2 hours and 24 minutes. Some may feel that is is not fair because we have to sleep for 8 hours each day. Well, 10% of a 16-hour waking day 1 hour and 36 minutes. Even if we were to subtract another 8 hours of full-time employment and propose that the time that we actually have is only 8 hours, 10% of 8 hours is 48 minutes. Do we give 48 minutes of our day to God? Suppose, this could be time spent in prayer, reading the Scripture, helping those in need–do we spend at least 48 minutes of each day doing those things? Something to think about…
According to surveys, nearly one-third of Orthodox Christian teens are unsure whether pornography is right or wrong. This is approximately the same number as that of teens who are unsure whether premarital sex is right or wrong. This is very telling in two ways. First, teens who are unsure about premarital sex are probably also unsure about pornography. And second, while the Church makes its position very clear–premarital sex and pornography are wrong–it needs to do a better job of explaining why. In this short paper, I would like to step away from the words ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ After all, Christ did not come to bring us laws and legislations. Sins are not right or wrong because someone issued a regulation. Instead, I would like to talk about things that are good for you or bad for you.
The Church teaches us that sexual intimacy is an important part of the sacrament of marriage: there, it has its rightful place; there, it helps the two become one; and there, it fulfills all of its functions–from the expression of love and commitment to the co-creation with God in continuing the human race. Marriage is a sacrament with the “principal and ultimate goal [of] the spiritual and moral perfection of the spouses.” As with any sacrament, that which is sacramental, should not be used for profane purposes. Imagine that a priest throws a party in the holy altar, and then on Sunday, after having picked up the trash, he serves the Divine Liturgy there. Or, he uses the chalice to drink his coffee in the mornings, and then on Sunday he uses it for the Eucharist. Even on an intuitive level we understand that this would be blasphemy. And yet, it is the same with our bodies. The Apostle Paul teaches that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19), and it belongs to your spouse for the fulfillment of the sacrament of marriage (7:4)–whether we are married now or will one day be married. Imagine your love for your spouse as a cup filled to the brim, and you want to give all of it, the fullness of it to your beloved. If you start bumping into strangers along the way or allowing them to take some of what you are carrying, then you will not be able to preserve the fullness of your love, and will hand to your beloved a cup half-empty, if not altogether unworthy of a sacrament.
All of this can be said about premarital sex in general, but what about pornography? Pornography is just as bad as premarital sex, but more dangerous. When a person engages in a sexual act with another person, both are aware that they are giving up a part of themselves; and the more partners a person has, the more fractured he or she becomes. But pornography camouflages itself as something unreal, virtual, something that is one’s private business, something that does not hurt anyone. Our culture tells us that we are free to do whatever we want, as long as it does not hurt anyone. Let us heed this advice and remember that ‘anyone’ means us as well. Let us make sure that whatever we do does not hurt us physically or spiritually.
Christ said: “…every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). The reason Christ equates looking lustfully, the very definition of pornography, with adultery, a physical act, is because we are not some bags full of disconnected parts–body, soul, mind, spirit, will, etc.–but whole and interconnected beings. If we have a toothache, our mind may become irritable; and if our mind is anxious, our whole body may ache. This is why when we allow pornography to enter into our eyes and our mind, our entire being is affected. The “virtual” sin of pornography most often leads to very physical masturbation. And once something is seen, it cannot be unseen–it imbeds itself in the mind, the memory, the subconscious. We would not want to share our spouse and our marriage bed with a bus-load-full of porn actors and actresses. But in reality, this is what we do when our minds are polluted with pornorgaphy and we enter into the sacrament of marriage bringing all those “passengers” along. On second thought, porn ‘actors’ and ‘actresses’ perform sexual acts for money, and there is another term for that–prostitution. The Apostle Paul says that “he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her” (1 Cor. 6:16). These are very powerful words. This means that when we commit adultery in the heart–watch pornography–we become one with that prostitute, instead of our spouse. This is not only destructive to the sacrament of marriage, but also to our own souls: with how many prostitutes can one become one before the soul is completely broken, damaged, fractured, and polluted?
Ways to Fight Against Pornography
- Avoid those television shows, movies, magazines, and websites that arouse sexual passion. It is much easier to fight against sin while it is still a little worm than to battle it once it becomes a fire-breathing dragon.
- Do not underestimate the brute power of sexual desire. People have killed and died under the influence of the sexual passion. Do not play with fire or you risk being burnt.
- Remember that demons, including those of lust, are best resisted through prayer and fasting. Pray often and ask God for help. Keep the real fast, not a vegan diet.
- Keep your eyes and your mind on our Savior and His Most Pure Mother. If you spend time on the computer or watch television–place an icon next to the screen. If looking at what is on your screen and in the eyes of Christ at the same time makes you uncomfortable or ashamed, then something is wrong with what is on your screen. Do something about it! (There is an OFF button on every device.)
- Seek healing in repentance. Once something is seen it cannot be unseen. But God can heal and restore the soul. Remember: repentance is not feeling bad about something. It is a firm decision to turn away from sin and turn to God. It is a decision to fight against sin, not merely feel bad about having committed it. It is a sacrament of reconciliation with God, not a formality of entering a guilty plea on a heavenly court docket.
On the fourth Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the memory of Saint John, the Abbot of Mount Sinai. For centuries, his work, The Ladder, has been a favorite Lenten reading for those who wish to ascend from earth to heaven, and many pastors urge their parishioners to learn from this treasure chest of ascetic wisdom.
Much can be said about the gems contained in the work of Saint John of the Ladder, but I have been thinking about the very image of the ladder. A ladder is not a wormhole; it is not a teleportation device. A ladder has steps, and one has to step on one before stepping on the next, climb on the lower level before continuing to a higher one. The image of a ladder reveals to us the gradual nature of ridding ourselves of passions and acquiring virtues.