Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Thoughts and Prayers

It grieves me to hear that a saying once used for sympathy has now been politicized. When we used to say, “you are in our thoughts and prayers” it was a way of saying we care. Now the saying has been weaponized by certain political groups as a way of saying people don’t care. Recently, I watched a young girl speak out about a tragedy that happened at her school. In her speech she said that we don’t need thoughts and prayers. My first reaction when I heard this was that she probably never experienced prayer. However, I don’t think most people know the potential of prayer. Prayer in our society has been reduced to a pious act. It is just something we do to feel good or to have hope in a situation. Also, in some situations its like a last resort where we hope to get lucky with a response.

There is nothing wrong with feeling good, having hope, or wanting a response but prayer is much more than that. Prayer changes things!  Just consider Psalm 107:28-30, it says “Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven”. As the psalm says, not only were people saved from trouble, by their prayers ,but creation itself experienced a silence coming from God’s presence. As the psalm states, God entered the world and the world was changed. This is the kind of power God has given us through prayer.  

It’s a great mystery but God has subjected Himself to our prayers. Imagine if the Christian churches that we see on just about every intersection in our country believed that. Imagine seeing these places as instruments of true change in our society. The fact is they are not and sometimes they have become part of our troubles. The thing our churches often miss in being these places for change is God’s desire that we be, “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1peter 2:9).

We are a priestly people called to live in a righteous way. In fact, according to scripture the effectiveness of prayer is sometimes defined by how righteous someone is (James 5:16). This fact is also emphasized in 1Peter 3:7 where it says that prayers can be hindered by how we treat others. Being a disciple of the teachings of Jesus Christ releases the grace of God into this world. Likewise, being disobedient to his teachings hinders his grace into this world. Yes, I am saying that by not authentically following the teachings of Christ we can have ineffective prayer. This is a great mystery, but it does reveal the value and importance of our actions.

Galatians 6:7-10 says, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life”. By being unfaithful to Christ we have seen the fruit of how prayer is now understood. We are as Galatians teaches, "reaping what we have sowed". Prayer has become a powerless expression that has lost its value, even among those that bear the name of Christian. Thankfully, its not to late to change this. It says in 2 Chronicles 7:14, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land”. God is just waiting for us to repent.

St. Seraphim of Sarov was person that people would go to for prayer in old Russia. To this day people still call on him for help. They knew he was a person that God would hear and from whom we could get a response. However, he would teach people that you could be that person that God would hear. Among his sayings he said, “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved”. God wants us to be people that can change the world. To be people filled with his Spirit of Peace. All this takes is following Jesus in every moment. To hear his voice in your heart and to follow him. God makes no distinction among us and invites all of us to have the Spirit of Peace. We just need to be willing and continually faithful in our response to Him.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Ye are Gods!

The Son of God became man so that we might become God. No, I am not in a cult. Yes, I do believe that we become gods by grace. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, the only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods(460). To become divine is a basic Christian doctrine. Unfortunately, this doctrine has been lost in modern Christianity. For the most part, modern proclamations of the Gospel portray us as sinners in the hands of the angry God. We are offered the chance to escape God’s wrath and are given the hope of heaven in the life to come.
Not to diminish the modern aspect of being reconciled to God, but what good is this message to someone who is facing a life sentence in prison. For such people, life is day to day suffering. A guy in prison facing a life sentence, unlike most people, knows there is a profound distance between himself and God. Even if he accepts the fact that he can be forgiven, this does not take away the reality that his life now has become a constant struggle for meaning. All opportunities to find meaning that could have once been his are gone, all he has are the bars in front of him. Sure, you can tell him that following Christ in prison makes him a good example but that can only go so far. I mean, just about every religion in the world can help you to be a good example, so why is Christianity any different? Well, it’s different because the only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.  
We can have God now, we are called to experience God now. We don’t have to wait to get to heaven. It starts now. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me”. We don’t come to the Father after we die and go to heaven, we go to him as soon as we are reconciled to him through baptism in Jesus Christ.  Through baptism we receive the promise of the Holy Spirit who makes us partakers of the divine nature (2peter 1:4). The Holy Spirit is someone that we become consciously aware of and we can grow in our experience of him by following Jesus Christ.
As St. seraphim of Sarov taught, the true goal of our Christian life consists of acquiring God’s Holy Spirit, becoming a god. We can grow in our experience of God.  Our bodies are designed for God’s presence, it is his presence that makes us divine beings. Jesus Christ restores to us our right to be able to participate in divine life. Not only does he take away our sin, he also takes away everything that keeps us from God. We can have God now and we are not limited in our experience of Him. As St. Seraphim of Sarov also said, “fasting and vigil, prayer, mercy, and every other good deed performed for Christ — are means for acquiring the Holy Spirit of God. Only deeds performed for Christ give us the fruits of the Holy Spirit”.
So please do not find it a strange thing when I say, “ye are gods (John 10:34).” I am not proclaiming the 4th person of the Holy Trinity. Nor am I saying that you are to be worshiped. I am merely stating our potential as beings called to participate in the divine nature. God is divine by nature and we become divine by participating in what he shares with us. God is not holding anything back and if for some reason you find yourself having a dull and meaningless Christianity I invite you to as one saint says, "come, bow and fall down together with me and do not rise until you have received the gift of God, as I, who am unworthy, have received this gift of grace". Having the divine nature working in your life is a gift, as the saint said. It is a gift that God eagerly wants to share with us. We just need to be aware of what we have through our baptism and participate in it.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Some thoughts on Hesychasm

     In my opinion, Hesychasm is the most suitable way for modern man to experience the Gospel.  Unfortunately, Hesychasm is a topic that many people in my church are not familiar with. Regardless, all Byzantine Catholic churches today share a foundation in it. Hesychasm became an official doctrine in 1300’s and it was the Hesychasts who helped develop the structure of the Byzantine rite as we know it, in what was called the Neo-Sabaitic Typikon. Basically, the Hesychasts of Mt. Athos promoted and circulated the Typikon. In addition, it was their spirituality that accompanied and supported the Typikon. Some of the evidence for this is still with us today. For instance, the Athonite tradition of the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” is a popular prayer for Byzantines. Also, It’s not uncommon to see those who practice this prayer using a prayer rope, along with various ascetic postures that have their root in Hesychasm. Another instance, the monastic texts compiled on Mt. Athos in what’s called The Philokalia is still revered among Byzantine Catholics, even though its relationship to Hesychasm is generally not understood.
     Hesychasm is a spirituality for everyone. It is commonly known as the pursuit of stillness. A stillness that is achieved by learning how to approach God through prayer and watchfulness.. The stillness that a Hesychast seeks is in one sense a state of healing from what the fathers call the passions. The passions are the root of our sinful desires. The Hesychast follows various ascetic methods inspired by grace in order to overcome the passions. In this regard, Hesychasm is more like a science or a therapy that seeks to heal our relationship with God. In terms of it being a science the Philokalia is traditionally known as the perfect manual next to the bible for practicing Hesychasm.  
     Also, it could be said that a return to the heart is the overall emphasis of Hesychasm. The heart is the place where we encounter God. Being in the heart is the natural state of the human person, which is achieved through God’s grace and cooperation with him. To understand this better it is necessary to elaborate more on the concept of the heart. Basically, in the Byzantine tradition the heart is the essence of the soul. It is also the center and summation of the three faculties of the soul: the rational faculty (our ability to reason), the appetitive faculty (our ability to desire), and the incensive faculty (our capacity to will). In addition, there is also an energy of our soul that originates in our hearts, which the Byzantine tradition calls the Nous, it is the power that operates through our faculties. Also, the Nous should be understood as located in the heart not like in a vessel but as if in an organ. For example, just like how the physical organs maintain the function of the body through blood flow, the heart produces the noetic energy as fuel for the functions of our soul. Consequently, everything that the soul does has its foundation from what is conceived in the heart through the noetic energy that operates in our faculties.
     The natural disposition of the Nous is oriented toward God through the heart. In fact, the three faculties of the soul were designed to find God in the created order through the noetic energy. However, this is no longer the case do to sin. The problem now with the heart is that the nous is scattered and diffused through our senses into a fallen world. In the original sin the heart became darkened in its relationship with God causing the Nous to malfunction. This is reflected in the creation narrative in how man tried to become a god by following the consul of the serpent (Genesis 3:1). Man indeed was to become a god being in the image of God and called to be like him. This was done through a natural disposition of the Nous and in following the commands that God gave to man. However, man used his noetic energy to follow what is called a Logismoi, which are thoughts often connected with a false image. As result, the noetic energy that once operated toward God replaced God with a false image, and the passions were born.
     The passions remain the great tragedy of the fall that we can’t escape. There is always a Logismoi that comes to our rational faculty saying that this is “the way “or this will make you “fulfilled”. Just like the serpent who spoke to our ancestors in the garden we also yield our desire and will to the serpent’s voice and our noetic energy is no longer directed toward God, which gives birth to a passion. Wanting to find “the way” or being “fulfilled” or in the case of our ancestors “becoming gods” in their own right are not bad things. However, like our ancestors, we are just putting the energy in the wrong place and are powerless to do otherwise, when left to ourselves. Thanks be to God that he gives us the grace now in Christ to overcome our passions, which can be found in the practice of Hesychasm.
     As it says so eloquently in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God. The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods (460)”. Christ did the work of Hesychasm that we could not do, which results in Theosis, becoming a god through grace. In the words of St. Maximos the Confessor, the Lord, "became a man without the slightest change or mutation". There was nothing different about the humanity that God assumed and it is the same humanity that you and I have now. The exception is in what God did with his human nature. Where we are powerless to overcome the passions, because of sin, we find that Christ, "By His privations in the flesh He re-established and renewed the human state", which is to say that he never yielded his noetic energy to a Logismoi. We lacked the power before Him to do this, but now, "by His own incarnation He bestowed human nature the supernatural grace of deification", which can be found in the practice of Hesychasm (Philokalia v2 pg246). 
     It is through the sacraments that we are initiated into the life of Christ, which is the life of Hesychast. The sacraments provide the unmerited encounter God necessary to practice Hesychasm. They also renew the encounter and enrich it. As St. Diadochos in the Philokalia teaches it’s through the sacraments that we receive “all grace” (v1 pg. 279). This is to say, we don’t get part or pieces of God but everything that he is through the mediation of the sacraments. However, this encounter with God is mediated and depends upon our cooperation with him. By grace God comes to take up residence in our hearts through the sacraments but our experience of this salvation depends upon our cooperation. This is where our own ascetical battle with the passion comes into play. He provides the power but it’s up to us now if we want to be truly free, to become hesychasts, and in turn grow in our experience with him.
      One of the ways of utilizing the sacramental power that I have been speaking of is through what our tradition calls Nepsis. Nepsis comes from the Greek word “nepho,” which means to guard, watch over, and keep under surveillance. Nepsis in Hesychasm is the practice for what we allow in our hearts. Nepsis could be described as if having the foreknowledge of a thief that was going to rob you. With this knowledge, you give all your attention to the coming of the thief, you are watchful. Through Nepsis we are seeking to guard the heart. As I shared earlier the Nous is malfunctioning because of sin. Nepsis is the foundational means to heal the Nous. Sin begins with a Logismoi that comes to our rational faculty. If we are not watchful of this activity the Logismoi can lead us to a desire it. The Nous then leaves the heart and then is redirected toward the false reality that the Logismoi offered leaving our heart darkened, which stops the flow of Divine grace into it. This is a very serious thing that happens when one is not watchful. For if we are not watchful, what started with one thought and one sin could lead to a whole lifestyle of indulging in impassioned thoughts leading us further and further away from God. Nepsis seeks to put a stop to this by learning to always be vigilant in what we let into our heart.
     Some of the Fathers of the East in speaking about Nepsis refer to it as an ascetical method inspired by divine grace for it leads us into prayer. It is not something we master but something to always be practiced. Much like someone who plays a sport who is always practicing for it. In practicing the cleansing of the heart from impassioned thoughts, seeking a Hesychia of the mind, there must always be a loving attentiveness to God. In choosing not to receive the Logismoi into the heart we are saying we want something else in the heart, which is to say we want God. Thus, Nepsis gives way to prayer where we can call out, “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”.  We are doing the work that God wants us to do and at the same time we must anticipate through prayer that God in some mysterious way is illumining our intentions with divine grace.
     In anticipating the work of God there is no static or clear cut response. We know that he is doing something but we can never fully grasp what it is. All we know is that there is an experience of God and we know this through grace. It’s not the kind of experience that can be measured by feelings or the miraculous. It’s more like a memory of God that we can know and can genuinely respond to. It is this memory that becomes the aim for our entire life where we can through faith seek to see God as He is.  As St. Symeon the New Theologian teaches, “Do not say that God cannot be seen by human beings. Do not say that humans may never see the light of God; Or at least that it is not possible for this generation. My friends this is never impossible. It is more than possible – for those who desire it".

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Finding more of God in our Liturgies

    In my early experiences of the Byzantine tradition I struggled to find God in our liturgies. He might have been present in the Liturgy but all I cared about was getting to the Eucharist. I understood the need for the ritualistic symbolism that is found in our liturgies but I could not connect with it. In my case, I was heavily influenced by a piety found in the Roman Catholic tradition that is intensely focused on the Eucharist. Not that such piety is a bad thing but in my case the Eucharist became my only means to encounter the fullness of God.
     Perhaps the piety I experienced is the result of the reformation era for it seeks to reinforce the concept of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If I had to guess, I believe this piety is common among the people in our churches. For example, we may not have trouble with people coming to a Sunday Liturgy but any other liturgical service without a Eucharist is not met with similar devotion. I have even at times witnessed people leaving after they receive the Eucharist, as if the rest of the Liturgy did not matter. I can’t speak for others in this regard but that was how I would think. Fortunately, after having a conversation with my pastor many years ago I was liberated from that thinking. He told me that in the Divine Liturgy Christ is fully present and becomes most present at the Eucharist. This helped me to understand that I can encounter God fully in every part of our liturgical tradition.  
     The Liturgy is our living Tradition, it is divine revelation, and the way God has chosen to come down to our earthly level in order to raise us up to his own.  There might be different aspects of divine revelation in our liturgies but the same experience of God is in every part of it. When the day of judgment comes for us we will discover that God didn’t hold any of what he is back from us in our liturgies. He will be just as present to us then as he is now. As soon as we began to participate in any aspect of our liturgical tradition we will encounter God. He can be found through the incense, the chant, the words, and every symbol. Our liturgical traditions in the fullest sense becomes a way for us to experience God.
     The liturgical traditions we celebrate are the icons of the Kingdom of Heaven. As he will continue to do in the future Kingdom God now invites us into an eternal participation of what He is. Based on this I am bold to say that if you go to Vespers you get 100% God. If you go to 3rd hour you get 100% God. If you got to that panachida service its 100% God.  The deepest expression of God’s intimacy might solely be expressed by the Eucharist but everything else in our liturgies facilitates and enhances that intimacy. Next time you participate in a liturgical service I encourage you to be open to the experience God wishes to share with you.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Myth and the Theotokos

         In the Divine Liturgy we celebrate real history. We don’t celebrate myths, religious ideals, or the wisdom of men. Its a history according to God’s reckoning and one that requires us to have faith. For the majority of those that would attended a Divine Liturgy there might not be a contention with what I just said. If there is, we have unlimited manuals of apologetics that can explain how everything can make historical sense. Even with events like the resurrection any doubt can be talked down. I bet St. Paul could have used some of the apologetics that we have today. When he came preaching the resurrection to Greeks many of them thought he was nuts (Acts 17:32). The resurrection just did not make any sense according to the way the Greeks understood history. For those that did accept the preaching of St. Paul they were accepting something they could not explain away. This was a big risk for them but one that must have been fueled by an authentic encounter with Christ.
           The Divine Liturgy is our greatest encounter with Christ. As of such, it should determine our understanding of history even if there is a risk involved. The liturgical feasts that we celebrate in our tradition have changed the world and continue to do so. The feasts are historical and at the same time beyond history. They exist within and outside of time and are the salvation for the World. As I said, we don’t celebrate ideas but real events that continue to shape history. It is in celebrating these very events that we the baptized bring salvation into the World. In fact, I would be bold to say that if we neglect an opportunity to participate in a liturgy the World suffers. It’s a mystery why God chooses to bring salvation into the world through human participation. On the other hand, human participation is pretty much the content of the feasts we celebrate.   

With all this being said, I will now proclaim a historical fact: If the Theotokos as a child did not enter the sacred part of the Jewish Temple none of us would be saved. I make this statement based on an element of one of the Great Feasts of our Church, “The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple”. Tradition teaches us the Theotokos was brought by her parents to serve in the temple community and it was there she was led by the High priest into the depths of the temple where she became the true holy of holies. This event is historically impossible from what we know about Judaism at the time. It’s just as impossible as a person coming back from the dead or ascending into heaven. In contrast, if these things did not happen none of us would know salvation.
God is always intervening in history. Our Tradition celebrates this intervention and perpetuates it. I know that this “The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple” has sometimes been subject to debate. It comes from a non-canonical source and no historical science could verify its validity. However, it’s part of our sacred Tradition. If you were to call this feast into question its understandable. However, the next time you attended this liturgy ask yourself what you are celebrating. Is it a Myth, theological ideas, good intentions, or an event that saves the world?  

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

We become God

     Ever since I was able to grasp what my church was teaching I have not been the same. For some of us its easy to keep God distant through the use of religion. What is not easy for us is accepting  that through Christ there really is no distance between us and God. When it comes to this idea of distance my church teaches that God became man so that man can become God. At the first time of hearing this, like many, I found it unacceptable. It seems it’s easy to get hung up on a false context in which there is an invitation to a new pantheon. As for the teaching it means what it says but it does so in a Christian context. In its context it is clear that we the created are called to participate in the uncreated, to share in what God is through grace, to partake of the Divine Nature (2peter 1:4). As St. Diadochos of Photiki teaches God is someone who has been given completely to us but remains hidden in our hearts. On our part, we are called to an ongoing participation in what He has given us. To make known to ourselves and to the world what has done in those who are baptized.
     For the baptized there is no need to go through phases or stages to have God. As Saint Cyril of Jerusalem said once, “having been baptized into Christ, and put on Christ, you have been given the same form as the Son of God”. After hearing this, our first thought is often to assume that we become “like” Christ through baptism, therefore making us near to God. Unfortunately, using the term “like” in reference to what the saint is saying can diminish his actual meaning. In contrast, the saint specifically said that we have been given the same “form” as Christ. In this case, where we use the term “like” to imply a mere resemblance the saint uses “form” which implies that we are of the same thing, which makes God more than just near. Christ was true God and true man. It was His divine nature that transformed His human nature, even giving it victory over death. This same thing now takes place in each one of us. This is a mystery for sure but one in which we can understand that there are no distances between us and God.
     We who believe in Christ only need to look in our own heart to see God and to know that His divine nature is changing us. On the other hand, experiencing  this should not be an isolated experience. This same mystery is found in every member of the Church. For its only in the context of being a member of the Church that this mystery can be fully realized. In terms of the Church, as Byzantine Catholic I believe that the greatest way to experience this mystery is found in the Divine Liturgy. In another perspective, I would be bold to say that from God’s view the greatness in the Liturgy comes from us. What I trying to say is that what takes place in my Holy Tradition is incomplete as long as it remains on the altar. We are in fact the destination for all the Divine activity that takes place in the Liturgy. It is true that the bread and wine becomes God but we do even more!
     In saying these things I wonder why it’s easier for me to accept that bread becomes God  instead of those who participate in the Liturgy. Why is it so easy for me to keep Christ on the altar and not within me. This is scandalous language I know but its language that some saints never failed to speak about. For example, St. Symeon the New Theologian had this to say, “We awaken in Christ's body as Christ awakens our bodies and my poor hand is Christ. He enters my foot and is infinitely me. I move my hand and wonderfully my hand becomes Christ, All of him, For God is indivisibly whole, seamless in his Godhead. I move my foot, At once he appears like a flash of lightning”. He goes on to say that even the most ugly and hidden parts of us become transformed, they become God. I guess in all my own ugliness its hard to accept that everything in that Eucharist is everything now in me.
     Speaking more on my ugly parts, looking at my own life, in terms of my sins, what my church teaches seems impossible. How can I become what God is or rather why? I still don’t understand why He loves me or why He has given Himself fully to me. I certainly don’t deserve this but I do accept it. In accepting this I have also made a commitment to never give up; even when it seems superficial to keep turning to God due to the fact that I keep falling into the same sins. For me, just knowing that He is there without measure drives me to never give up. I really don't understand how it all works but I do know that by constantly turning to Him I am being changed and becoming what He is through grace.

"The Word became flesh to make us "partakers of the divine nature":"For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God." "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." "The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods." (Catechism of the Catholic church 460)