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.

The implications of Christ as fully Man (Met Anthony)

Spas_vsederzhitel_sinayAs a student of Pope St Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon — and, thus, its aftermath — the significance of that Councils’ Symbolon of the Christian Faith, its definition (which I translated here), is often just below the surface of my mind. Thus, I greatly appreciate this from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, God and Man:

There is in the Church a vision of man which is not a theory of man. It is not the ideal man, it is not the invented man, nor man as we wish he were, and towards which we aim as a sort of created transcendence. No, we have put on the altar a concrete real man — Jesus of Nazareth — and we must have a look at what is implied. We see in the Creed that Christ was true man and true God. When we say that He was true man we imply two thing: the fact that He was God has not made Him into a man alien to us, a man so different from us that He has only the same shape and the same name while in reality He has nothing in common with us; on the other hand, we proclaim that being the true man means to be a revelation of man in his fulfilment, man as he is called to be, and that in Christ we have a vision — concrete, real, historical — of what we are called to become in our realilty, in our historicity and in our becoming. So when we say that Christ is true man, we affirm that to be united with the Godhead does not annihilate or change the nature of man, and it is only in Him, because man is united in Him with the Godhead, that man is revealed in his full potentiality. Because man as a specimen of natural history i snot man in the sense in which we believe man is truly human. Man becomes truly human only when he is united with God intimately, deeply, inseparably, so that the fullness of Godhead abides in the flesh. I am using terms which are applied to Christ in the Scriptures, but which I believe are applicable to man if we take, for instance, the words of St Peter in his Epistle that our vocation is to become partakers of the divine nature — God’s participators and not just human beings related to a God who remains an outsider to us. But that implies a quite different vision of man, and it also implies something which I believe to be important, a quite different vision of the Church. (pp. 60-61)

True humanity is only fully realised in union with God. This is, at one level, the Adamic state (did not God walk in the Garden in the cool of the evening?). At another level, it is something higher. Many of the Church Fathers believe that the human race was meant to progress in knowledge of God and perfection even without the Fall, but that sin now hampers us (Sts Irenaeus and Athanasius, at least). Christ, by uniting humanity to the Divine, has reignited our ability to be who we are meant to be — and to go beyond even Adam.

Here we also have a good description of the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. Met. Anthony here references 2 Peter 1:3-4:

According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.

This reminds me of St Leo, in fact; Leo argues that because of the Incarnation and the full humanity of Christ who is also fully God, we enter into the divine relationship — and we have a duty to our human neighbours who are sharers in the same nature as Christ. And Christ is God.

A friend recently expressed doubt about the possibility of theosis reconciling itself with Scripture. Theosis is about union with God where we retain all of our humanity but share in the divine nature by God’s grace. It is based on passages like 2 Peter 1, or Ephesians 4:13, or Romans 8:29, or 2 Corinthians 3:18. It is also, when properly understood (I recommend Met. Kallistos on theosis), an implication or outgrowing of the Church’s dogmatic statements in the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the Rule of  Faith, and the historic liturgies.

Theosis rests, in western terminology, on both Scripture and Tradition. (So we Anglicans can accept it when it is properly understood.)

This is, of course, the goal of mysticism and asceticism:

Release me, and free my heart from all dependence on the passing consolation of wicked things, since none of these things can yield true satisfaction or appease my longings. Unite me to Yourself by the unbreakable bonds of love. You alone can satisfy the soul that loves You, and without You the world is worthless. -St Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 3.23, trans. Leo Sherley-Price, p. 124

Let us, therefore, seek the Face of Christ, enter into God’s throneroom, and, resting in the stillness, become partakers of the Divine Life. This is the greatest implication of Chalcedon for the Christian life today. Own it. Live it.

Faith, truth, and discovery

Very often, the Internet demonstrates to us that Christians/believers and those who do not ‘believe’ are speaking at cross-purposes, especially when it comes to the word Faith. Many on the side of ‘unbelief’ imagine that faith is a blind following of what we have always been told, of believing the things you accepted on authority as a child and never maturing in your intellectual capacity as far as the content of religious/spiritual/metaphysical belief is concerned.

Christians/believers, on the other hand, try very hard to explain what faith is to us in different terms. I, personally, take a philological root for the discussion. Faith comes from Latin fides, which is used to translate the Greek pistis. Pistis has to do with trust, and can be used not only regarding belief, the Divine, philosophy, etc., but also of your neighbour, a business transaction, the sturdiness of a boat — I pisteuo that which is trustworthy.

This leads to the English word trust and its cognates — trustworthy, true, tree, tryst. Things that are (or are meant to be!) sturdy, reliable. The element here is not blindness but trusting that which you believe to be reliable. The Christian argument, then, is that faith, fides, pistis, trust is about relying upon things that you have considered and tested and found to be worthy of your faith, fides, pistis, trust. You have faith in a chair that it won’t collapse; you have faith in gravity that as you sleep you won’t float off into the heavens; you have faith in your bank that they will give your money when asked; you have faith in your spouse not to commit adultery.

Obviously faith in humans and human institutions — banks and spouses in the above — can prove false.

I am reading Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Sourozh (1914-2003), God and Man (2nd ed, 1974).* In chapter 2, ‘Doubt and Disclosure’, he re-examines the way we approach faith and doubt. And truth. He writes:

Truth is something which is an expression of reality, and an expression means two things: first, that the reality which surrounds us is perceived (obviously incompletely); secondly, that it is expressed (also incompletely, because of our inability to express reality in exact words and expressions). (44)

Due to the limitations of perception and expression, truth as we set it out will always need to be checked and revised. This is part of a large analogy with the activity of the scientist. Before becoming a monk, Met. Anthony had a science background and was, I believe, a medical doctor. He explains that for the scientist, truth is not a static thing; truth is expressed better, in this case, by the term model. A scientist gathers knowledge, information, data from observation, reason, experimentation; this is assessed, evaluated, and the pieces are put together to form hypotheses, theories, and a working model.

But the scientist does not stop there. The scientist eagerly seeks to push the model to its boundaries. Reality itself does not change, but the model can. Therefore, the scientist first looks for any flaws in the model. Then the scientist looks for new information to incorporate or falsify the model. This is how progress is made, how we move from the scientific models of Newton to those of Einstein.

Faith should be dynamic as well. Our expressions of it are, by the nature of language, static. They are like a snapshot of someone giving a lecture, with his or her mouth open ‘like a hippopotamus’. However, we know that the reality of the lecture was a moving, dynamic event, and that open mouth, frozen in time for eternity, was but a moment.

When we come up against realities and knowledge and arguments and ideas that cause us to question our model of reality, the truth of metaphysical/spiritual things as we have expressed it, the first step is not to say, ‘Alas, Christianity is false! There must be no God!’ Instead, it is to provoke inquiry into our expression of reality, truth, as we have expressed it; where are its weaknesses? What other arguments, data, knowledge can be used to shift it, change it, modify it?

Moving back to the analogy I began with, the more relational analogy, this would mean asking, ‘What sort of Person(s) is God? What is wrong with my arguments for God’s character/existence/behaviour? What are the reliable sources for such knowledge? What would be the reliable sources? How do I approach these sources? How do I incorporate such knowledge into my understanding of the reality of God?’

These are the questions of a dynamic faith that has moved beyond mere acceptance of authority, as we do as children, to living in a complex world that will inevitably bring with it questions and doubts.

*Eastern Orthodox books from the ’70s are awesome.