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)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The True Church

     Someone told me once that their decision to join the Church was an intellectual one.  Likewise, on many occasions I have heard many testimonies of why intellectually people choose their religion. For instance, they will say things like “no other Church has these claims” or “no other religion teaches these things”.  I guess from an intellectual perspective it would make sense to appeal to the religion that has the most valid claims. In contrast, I don’t think I can relate to intellectual claims because most of my religious decisions were emotional. Unlike some, I can’t say that I am member of my church because it makes the most sense or that it has things others don’t. For me, it was a matter of following my heart in discovering what brought me closer to God. Maybe this was due the fact that when I started out on my spiritual path I could barely read or write. I did not have access to the popular saints of the day and even when I eventually did all I had to go on was what I was experiencing inside. The experience that I had I guess you could say is what I perceived of Christ. I saw this experience in myself, in others, and in my desire for more of it I followed it where it took me.
     As far as the intellect is concerned there have been many times in my experience where things have made no sense. In fact, there have been those in my life that have gone out of their way to show me how everything that I believe is false. After talking with such people the only honest response I can have to their claims is that if there was no presence of God in me I could see myself believing the way they do. Everything that I have has been grace or an emotional response to it and it is always associated with the knowledge of Christ. I guess in terms of intellectual development all my education has been aimed at knowing Christ better. I know that I can’t go on my experience alone but I would be dishonest if I didn’t mention that my education has always been organic to my first encounter of Christ. I seems in my case I wanted not to just follow my emotions but I was trying to have a better relationship with God through what I learned about Him.
    In terms of learning there is no doubt that it has contributed to the relationship that I have now with my church but this knowledge is always complemented by how I experience God. This is why I can’t say I am where I am because it’s better than other churches or because we have things other do not. In terms of what my church has given me there has been no other place that has provided me with what I experience now of Christ. At this point in my life, I can say that I have never felt more liberated in experiencing God and it has been my church alone that has brought me this healing. To me, this is the essence of what a True Church is. As Metropolitan Hierotheos once said, “the existence of the true Church is revealed in the degree of success. In medicine it is said that a correct medical theory is distinguished from a wrong one by its degree of success. Similarly, a doctor is good depending on his healing rate. Likewise for the Church”. I guess you can say that in following my emotions I was actually looking for the best kind of healing. I was attracted only to the best means that healed what I lacked in experiencing God and in following this healing I found my church.
     Today, there is no place that I’d rather be. My Ruthenian Greek Catholic church is the True Church.  By some standards my church is not perfect. However, even if it gets worse for these standards, it is where God heals me. Sometimes there are those that look at my church’s imperfections and try to provide arguments for why I should leave. If I wanted to I could probably provide an intellectual argument against what they say. However, in the end such debates have very little to do with experiencing God. I think the best way to convince others is to share what God has done in me through my church. Others might continue to say that they have things better or do things better but can they make me whole in the way my church has? When speaking with such people I often wonder if there is anything to share under all those ideas of why their church is the True one. The appeals to traditions, papal sayings, or councils are meaningless if you in fact have no healing to offer.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Defending the Theotokos

     The other day I was challenged to provide a historical foundation for the feast of the Dormition. The person making this challenge believed that my church was in error since there are no historical records concerning the feast until about the 5th century. I tried to explain that my church doesn’t get its tradition from the availability of historical documents. In my explanation, I demonstrated that there has always been an oral tradition that has preceded anything that was written. Unfortunately, he found my explanation unsatisfactory. According to him it makes no sense to believe in something that cannot be historically proven. In response, I explained that depending on how you understand history, Christianity is not a religion founded in historical satisfaction. In fact, everything that we believe in as Christians is built on oral tradition. I even pointed out to him that the few centuries of oral traditions concerning the Dormition are nothing compared to the oral traditions that came before the bible. For instance, the book of Genesis could be the result of up to 1000yrs worth of oral tradition according to some scholars. Consequently, if I operated by what could be “historically proven” I would have to come to the conclusion that everything in Christianity “makes no sense”. Looking back on this conversation, I guess the point I was trying to make with him was that there is a different form of history at work concerning the Dormition.
     When it comes to our feasts of the Theotokos the Church presents something of its inner life. Of course, these feasts are something that don’t fulfill the standards of some historical methods in terms of their actuality. There is no doubt that in the Roman church the elevation of the Dormition/Assumption to a dogma was in some sense a response to certain historical philosophies at work amongst Catholics. Many of the Eastern churches have to do this day remained critical of Rome’s decision to do this. On the other hand, some of those who remain critical have themselves fallen under the spell of the “historical standard”. In fact, I have heard noted Eastern scholars reduce liturgical feasts concerning the Theotokos to mere ideologies. For instance, the feast of the Theotokos entering the Temple has been reduced by some to a teaching about her holiness instead of an actual real event. To me, such a reduction runs counter to liturgical theology. Our liturgical feasts are not ideas but are in fact real events that we participate in through grace. They might not make the standard that certain scholars use for history but they are from a history that transcends the boundaries of human limitations. I don’t think it’s necessary to make every feast of the Theotokos a dogma. What I do think is necessary is a renewal in the understanding of what salvation history is.
     In our modern world there is no census on how history is done. Today we might believe that Alexander the Great conquered most of the ancient world but 50yrs from now new research might prove something else. Historical events are constantly being subject to the historians and their research. This doesn’t mean that modern history is not reliable but it does demonstrate its limits. One thing for certain that modern history cannot do is to tell us what God has done in the world. For this we need a different form of history and history that has no limits, which is salvation history. In salvation history the mysteries that pertain to our faith are not communicated in the same way we might receive history in a secular classroom. It is not subject to methods, critiques, or chronological presentation. It comes to us through an experience of God and this experience is communicated from person to person. As a result, it would not matter if there was a million years of oral tradition that predated what was written about the Dormition. The history is guided and communicated by God and it is by grace that we can participate in the history of this communication.
     As far as secular history is concerned there are no doubt patterns of data that can be seen as sources for the feast of the Dormition. However, even if the patterns gave detailed accounts going back to the actual events of the Theotokos falling asleep we would not be able to escape the risk of having to put faith in something we can’t prove. Intellectual certitude about any aspect of faith always comes at a price and we must be willing to trust God that He is leading us into truth. As the scripture teaches faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen (Heb. 11:1), it is not intellectual certitude achieved by scientific means. This doesn’t mean that what we believe in is irrational but it does mean that we have to maintain an active hope in the faithfulness of God. In my own life I have heard many arguments that tried to prove my faith wrong. To those that challenged me I think the only real thing I had to offer them was how my life has changed by following what I believe. Most of the time that’s all what people really want to see when they don’t understand our traditions.