Suffering (St Mark the Monk and Metropolitan Anthony Bloom)

An illuminating interview with Anthony Bloom is at the bottom of this post. Skip to it if you only have 22 minutes…

Holy Saturday.

Countless sermons and Eastertide devotionals remind us of what Our Lord’s disciples must have felt this day.

Bewilderment. Loss. Fear. Disillusionment. Suffering of an existential variety.

The day before, Good Friday.

One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.

Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, Who was crucified for us, have mercy.

Kyrie eleison!

Christ rests in the tomb. Some days, it feels like maybe He stayed there — personal suffering blocking theological perspective. Illness of oneself or a loved one, poverty, bereavement, loss of employment, tenuous employment, tense work/family/household/school/church situations, mental illness.

There are actually no easy answers for suffering. Brother Lawrence in The Practice of the Presence of God says that we should accept illness, in particular, as God’s will for us, that we may learn to live under His will. My friend with chronic illness found this singularly unhelpful.

In God and Man, Met. Anthony Bloom says that as Christians, we must be ready to suffer. Indeed, he says that Christianity necessarily involves suffering. This is in stark contrast to what we usually think about religion. I remarked to a group of students recently that many people join different religions or ancient mysteries because they are promised happiness through religion — except, I said, by Met. Anthony.

At the bottom of this article, I am posting a video interview with Met. Anthony from CBC back in what looks like the 1980s. I’m a bit surprised to find this interview coming from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but I’ll take it! Anyway, in the interview, Met. Anthony believes that our suffering can be truly transformative and redemptive in our lives — if we suffer with love.

Love is what makes all the difference for Met. Anthony, although he also believes that fortitude and endurance can make suffering good for us as well. This is in contrast to how most of us view our own sufferings and those of others today. It is, however, in keeping with the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

St Mark the Monk (or ‘Ascetic’ or ‘Solitary’) wrote in the early to mid-400s, at a time when Nestorian and Pelagian ideas were hot topics. He is the next author in The Philokalia after St John Cassian on whom I blogged fairly extensively in February. I find St Mark hard to grasp at times, and I do not always agree with him. But he is worth wrestling with.

Some thoughts from ‘On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts’ (trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware):

42. Afflictions bring blessing to man; self-esteem and sensual pleasure, evil.

43. He who suffers injustice escapes sin, finding help in proportion to his affliction.

65. To accept an affliction for God’s sake is a genuine act of holiness; for true love is tested by adversities.

66. Do not claim to have acquired virtue unless you have suffered affliction, for without affliction virtue has not been tested.

67. Consider the outcome of every involuntary affliction, and you will find it has been the destruction of sin.

Numbers 65-67 resonate particularly with the teaching of Met. Anthony. I believe that part of what we see in these verses is a redirection of the heart. What matters is not, ultimately, blame, or origin of suffering. What matters is not its intensity. What matters is our response to it. This is part of the arguments found in Cassian’s Conferences, in fact; their philosophical roots are Stoicism.

If suffering comes our way, it is best, ultimately, to respond with reality. I was going to say, ‘If suffering comes our way, do we blame God, or see how we can respond to suffering in faith and virtue?’ But, really, how many of us have reached such a state of purity of heart that such is even possible. The Psalms teach us to be real with God.

The Psalms also push through disappointment, anger, frustration, grief, etc., directed towards God and draw us up into joy and glory.

So, perhaps, we should certainly give God whatever true feelings we have in the moment. But maybe the reflective and meditative exercise on sufferings is to see how we can become more virtuous through them? Maybe we can use the things over which we have no control to better our lives and the lives of others in areas where we do have control?

There are no quick, easy answers to suffering. But I think Met. Anthony Bloom of Sourozh is onto something.

I’d certainly take his view on suffering over Joel Osteen any day.

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Render unto God …

Denarius of Augustus fr. 19/18 BC, mint at Rome

Following from last night’s post, the passage in Matthew 22 that comes after the Parable of the Wedding Feast is that famous story where the Pharisees and Herodians try to trap Jesus by asking if it’s right to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus proves himself the master:

‘Shew me the tribute money.’ And they brought unto him a penny [denarius].* And he saith unto them, ‘Whose is this image and superscription?’

They say unto him, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then saith he unto them, ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. (Matthew 22:19-21, KJV)

Many people have written various political theologies based on that final verse. I’m not into political theology, even when it’s not missing the point.

Instead, reading this in light of Chrysostom’s golden oratory on the Parable of the Wedding Feast, the emphasis does not come out on politics. Caesar is, in fact, completely sidestepped. The emphasis falls on the second part:

unto God the things that are God’s.

To prove that a denarius is property of Caesar, Jesus takes one in his hand and points out that the image and superscription are those of the princeps.**

What, on those terms, is God’s?

This is the real question, isn’t it? Not, ‘Should we pay taxes?’ But, ‘What are we to give to God?’

And one thing springs immediately to mind when we ask what bears God’s image:

The human person.

Genesis 1:26-27:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping that creepeth upon the earth.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. (KJV)

Render unto God the things that are God’s?

That means the entirety of your self. You, by nature, by substance, are made in the image and likeness of the Creator God. This has many implications, including which: You are his.

How shall we render unto God today?

Prayer, scripture-reading, worship, thoughts of him, acts of mercy and compassion to strangers, friends, family, forgiving others, honouring our parents, prayer.

Somehow, we need to join the mystics, join Br Lawrence, in surrendering every moment of every day. Then, whether we’re doing taxes (rendering unto the Queen …) or eating breakfast or singing Psalms, we will be rendering unto God the things that are God’s.

*Fun non-Bible-related fact: The old abbrev. for ‘penny/pence’ is ‘d’ or ‘D’ because of this translation of denarius as penny.

**Awkward moment averted since the denarius had a Caesar on it. Imagine: ‘Whose is the image and superscription?’ ‘Mark Antony’s.’ ‘Well, then … render unto … Caesar? … the things that are Mark Antony’s??’

A little Brother Lawrence…

Finished off the manuscript that has brought me to Oxford with enough time to browse a used bookshop. Found this:

The book, that is, not me.
The book, that is, not me.

Unfortunately, that blurry photo taken with my webcam in Starbucks tells you only the amazing size of my 99p book find. It is The Practice of the Presence of God.

I’m quite chuffed about this purchase. For one thing, it’s a practical size of book. One of my rants (yet to be blogged) is the move from pocket books to trade paperbacks by series such as Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics as well as a great many Christian publishers. But back in 1961, they knew how to print pocketbooks.

This one would actually fit in your pocket, after all.

Of course, I don’t just buy small, cheap books willy-nilly.*

The Practice of the Presence of God is one of those books that people who talk about Christian mysticism talk about. Written by a Carmelite lay brother in the late 1600s, this little book turns up in many places, including the bookshelves of Protestants who doubt that Catholics are ‘saved’, and with the recommendation of Richard J Foster of Celebration of Discipline fame as well as Jim Houston, The Transforming Power of Prayer, and Dallas Willard (mind drawing a blank on which book of his references this one).

I have never read it, since my spiritual reading tends to be contemporary or ancient/mediaeval (more late ancient than mediaeval), so I’m looking forward to this.

You can read it online here.

*Insert Corner Gas reference: ‘How stupid are you? You can’t go shooting off your gun willy-nilly.’ ‘It wasn’t willy-nilly. It was at crows.’

What is a mystic, exactly?

Yesterday I was part of a very interesting conversation in the comments of my friend James’ Facebook status, a discussion ranging from grammatical gender to the human soul and the Godhead. His status was making an observation about (to quote James), ‘Brother Lawrence, classic Christian mystic’.

One of his friends, well after a bunch of us had gone through notes about gender, mysticism, and the gender of the word for spirit in Hebrew, Syriac, Latin, Greek, and English, asked the (seemingly) basic question about Br. Lawrence:

Christian ‘mystic’ – how does that work?

James answered:

I think the term is pretty loose, [Anastasia]* – he’s called a mystic because he strongly emphasises the ‘at hand’ presence of God in his writing. But in reality, he’s likely no more or less a ‘mystic’ than Jesus, Paul or many of the OT figures! He’s actually pretty cool reading – and because his writings are four centuries old, they’re all online free!

Thus, at a certain level, Brother Lawrence. He stresses the reality that God is present with you at all times. You just need to be aware of the immanence of the transcendent God. This is an important strand of ‘mysticism’, represented not only by the Carmelite brother in Practising the Presence of God but also by Presbyterian missionary Frank Laubach’s writings — of which I first came aware in Richard Foster’s book Prayer — such as Letters by a Modern Mystic.

However, is a mystic, therefore, simply someone who seeks (and succeeds?) to be aware of the presence of God everywhere, in everything, in every place, at all times? Someone who seeks to find God in his or her daily life — washing pots and pans, writing letters to family and friends, even blogging of all things?

Such a definition comes close to Andrew Louth’s in the introduction to his book The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, where he says that mysticism ‘can be characterised as a search for and experience of immediacy with God.’ (p. xv) Such a definition goes beyond the seek for the transcendent God in the everyday, though. In Louth’s definition, we are searching for and hoping to experience immediacy with God — we are hoping that the Kingdom of the Heavens, which is in the midst of us, will come and touch us. We want to join our Groom at his Banqueting Table under the banner of His Love.

Such a broad definition, however, covers the entire breadth of the Christian life. I sing Psalms on Sunday to encounter the Living God. For similar reasons do I read the Scriptures, receive the Eucharist, read spiritual books, listen to sermons, pray. But when we think of the term mysticism, it is not the daily, ordinary that comes to mind — although, perhaps it should. Perhaps the ‘mystical’ and the ‘ordinary’ should overlap, just as God breaks into human history in various points, just as Heaven and Earth seem to overlap.

Still — what do we usually mean by mysticism?

Mysticism is generally the internal life of the Christian, whether individually or in community (I reject the notion that one must be a solitary or ihidaya or monachos — monk — to have ‘mystical experiences’), as the Christian meets with and encounters the living God. In this vein, Lacoste’s Dictionnaire de Théologie says that mysticism is perceiving God through activity, a true feast of the soul through the interior to christ; it consists in ‘an experience of the presence of God in the spirit, by the interior enjoyment that an entirely intimate sentiment gives us.’ (‘Mystique’, p. 779)

We experience Him and He transforms us. In order to encounter God in the everyday, those who follow the mystic’s path set apart times and places for special remembrance of Him and His works. The normal round of Christian prayer and Bible-reading is part of this (as my uncle says, if you don’t read the Bible and pray, what kind of Christian are you?), yet there is a certain cultivation of the inner human being implicit in how the ‘mystic’ would go about this, hoping to receive from God The Inner Experience (to cite the title of a book by Thomas Merton).

Most commonly there are two particular types of prayer engaged in mystics as part of the ‘inner ecumenism’**  that mysticism provides Christianity. There is meditation. In the Christian sense, as used throughout the Middle Ages and conveniently organised by St. Francis de Sales, this is an activity of the mind. In meditation we pray to God and think over deeply a passage of Scripture, seeking to gain understanding and insight from God (see his Introduction to the Devout Life).

Sometimes, as described in Richard Foster’s little booklet Meditative Prayer, we imagine things. Perhaps we imagine ourselves placing all of our troubles in a box and giving them to Jesus. Perhaps we imagine the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon us like a fire and filling us up. Perhaps we imagine Christ on the Cross dying and loving us to the end. Meditation is the prayerful repeated calling to mind of the things of God through word and image.

The second type of prayer is contemplation. Contemplation is prayer beyond words. Some people give lessons on how to seek this state of prayer, this level of dispassion, such as Anthony de Mello’s book Sadhana: A Way to God. De Mello encourages you to spend a few minutes simply clearing your mind of all thought and seeking to wordlessly apprehend the presence of the Triune God in your midst. These psychological techniques are not necessarily to be scorned as some do, but we are to realise that they are psychological and mental.

For our spirit to commune with the Spirit, we must be willing for the Holy, Strong, Immortal God to take us beyond the pale of our experience. We must be willing to realise that all of our efforts in prayer, meditation, contemplation — these alone cannot bring us to God. In part, as St. Teresa’s Interior Castle reminds us, this is because God is already inside us. In part, this is because everything hinges upon God’s grace.

And so we come to my favourite part of thinking about mysticism. Mysticism is rooted in mystery, rooted etymologically in those ancient Greek-Egyptian-Roman-Near Eastern cults that promised special knowledge and salvation to the initiated — to those who have entered in (to give the etymology for initiated). Mysticism is an entrance into the mystery of the grandeur of the Presence of God. We come by His grace alone into his presence and experience whatever created beings can experience of union with the uncreated Creator.

The experiences of those who have been ushered into the throne room of God, into the Mystery, have at times been visions, such as Isaiah’s Throne Room vision in chapter 6. Some have encountered/experienced the ‘uncreated light’ of God’s grace. Others have felt a stillness, calmness, and peace such as no human action could bring. Still others have heard the Voice of God. Some have felt the warmth and tenderness of a mother’s love. Others have had, through their visions, converse with Jesus (think of Lady Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love). Many have entered the Cloud of Unknowing and realised how little they truly know. Others have simply known the joy of the presence of the Lord.

So, what is a mystic?

I think a mystic is a person who seeks to have an awareness of God in all times and all places and who cultivates an inner spiritual life through prayer and meditation that helps that awareness increase, being ushered into the Throne Room of the God of all.

If you think you want to brave mystical literature, any of the above books to which I have linked is a pretty good starting place. Although not one of the online, public domain ones, I highly recommend Richard Foster, Prayer, which deals with all sorts of prayer and has been a great help to me.

*Not her real name. But James is, in fact, James.

**Cf. Diarmaid MacCulloch, ‘The Triumph of Monastic Silence’, The Gifford Lectures 2012, Tuesday, April 24. Available online: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cmozaTn196M