Archive for December, 2008

Snuggling the Cactus

December 15, 2008

In his book,Hesychia and Theology, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, makes the following statement:“According to the patristic meaning of the word, everyone is a psychopath, that is to say, his soul is sick….the definition of ‘psychopathy’ (which comes from the Greek words for ‘soul’ and ‘suffering’) is that this disorder of the soul occurs in anyone whose noetic faculty is not functioning correctly; that is to say, when his nous is full of thoughts, not just bad thoughts but also good ones.”

I just knew it. My nous is filled with good thoughts, but it is also filled sharp, pointed and hurtful thoughts that usually result in hurtful actions.  Its like I’m snuggling a cactus.

I have memories, hurtful ones that play over and over again in my brain and stick me like the spine of a cactus. They say “if you haven’t forgotten then you haven’t forgiven.” Lord knows I’ve mustered all my energy to “forgive and forget”, but the memories come uninvited and I let them have play time in my brain even though they always hurt and never heal. For heaven’s sake, what good does it do? Why don’t I just turn away from these memories? Why am I snuggling the cactus?

I have hurtful and destructive attitudes that prove again and again to produce nothing good. These attitudes are like cactus spines that not only pierce my heart, but pierce the hearts of the people I love and want to serve. Lord knows, I’ve tried to change my attitude to one of gratitude, but the ugly attitudes come uninvited. Even though I know better, I give my bad attitudes play time until they have not only brought grief to me, but to those around me. For heaven’s sake, what good does it do? At least I could keep my bad attitude to myself. Why am I snuggling the cactus?

I practice a poor life of piety that feed little to my soul, but only leaves it gasping for something substantial. A meager prayer life, little study, little reading, little service, little charity, poor church attendance, poverty in fasting, and constant distraction are but a few examples of the poverty of my piety. It’s like a cactus spine to my spirit. For heaven’s sake, what good does it do? Why don’t I get up off of my lazy behind and feed my poor soul? Why am I snuggling the cactus?

I know why I snuggle the cactus. It may sound strange but these things give me a sense of identity. These things, though painful, have given me a context and a point of reference. After all, who would I be without my history of pain and abuse? Who would I be if I had a different attitude or a stronger life of piety? You see, I am a psychopath. My nous is filled with the prickly spines of thoughts both good and bad. I snuggle the cactus because it’s what I’ve always known.

St. Paul said that I can be transformed by the renewing of my mind (nous). I would find that my past will no longer tell me who I am. My abusers will not tell me who I am. My wife, my children, my boss, my work, even the members of my church will not tell me who I am. Only Christ will tell me who I am and his analysis is a sure one.

“Have the mind of Christ,” St. Paul said. Yes, it’s time to let go of the cactus, pull out the spines, and hug the Lord instead.

Thanks to my dear sister and friend, Veronica, for the original gem of this idea.

Hesychia and Theology, The context for Man’s healing in the Orthodox Church, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos. Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, publisher, first edition, 2007

Somebody’s Touching Me!

December 1, 2008

A woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years made her way through the massive crowd and managed to touch the hem of the Lord’s garment and was healed. According to Mosaic Law she could have been stoned because contact with blood made one unclean. Unclean people were not to be out among crowds.Yet this woman braves the crowd and reaches out to touch his garment.

Everyone tried to touch Jesus that day, and most did physically, but there was something different about this woman’s touch. There was faith in it. She was prepared for the encounter. She was focused on her goal. Her mind was simple and clear: touch his garment and I will be healed.

How do we know that her touch was different from the others? Jesus said that when she touched him, he felt virtue go from him. He told her that her faith had made her whole.How did she get such a faith? It’s a faith that I want as well. Was she a great student of the Old Testament? Was she a great monastic, dedicated to a life of prayer? All Luke says about her is that she had suffered from an issue of blood and had spent all of her money on doctors. It seems that there wasn’t anything especially remarkable about this woman. How then did she come by such faith?

The Fathers give a remarkable answer. They said that her suffering had perfected her faith. Suffering? This doesn’t seem reasonable to us because we moderns do all that we can to avoid suffering. We are full card carrying members of the club of Epicurus. To us, all suffering is meaningless and dehumanizing (and truthfully, some levels of suffering cannot be explained away with pious platitudes).Yet, by her life, we discover a secret: suffering can bring forth a purified and simple faith, a faith that had a single-minded purpose – touch the hem of His garment.

Many scriptures point to the need for single-minded faith. “Whatever you ask in my Name, not doubting” will be done, Jesus said. This woman had these three things, clarity of focus, courageous faith and utter self-denial. She doubted nothing and focused on her goal to touch Him, and touch him she did! This may explain the emptiness of my own spiritual lives and practice. I am too scattered, too distracted and too burdened with the cares and pleasures of life. I ask for a lot of things from the Lord, but I also doubt many things. I want to touch Jesus and in fact I touch Him every week in the Eucharist. But do I really touch him? So far, I continue to hemorrhage, mostly from my heart.

Rather than seeing her as a fragile and sick woman reaching out to touch the Lord, we should see the image of the spiritual athlete who by the training of her suffering came to the Lord with faith. Frankly, I would rather not be sick to learn these things. It is possible to gain faith by a life of discipleship, by following the Lord and taking up our cross. To be alive is to suffer in some way or another. To take up a cross is to embrace a way that does not avoid suffering, but transforms suffering to purifying fire that produces a simple faith and an undistracted focus-to touch Him!

Do we know this woman’s name? Yes, the Church called her Veronica! Later, she will touch Him again as she wipes His face as he journey’s to Golgotha!

Lachrymose Intolerant

December 1, 2008

I think I’m lachrymose intolerant! (lachrymose: adj. Weeping or inclined to weep; tearful. Latin lacrim?sus, from lacrima, tear)

Every day I see pictures of hungry or sick children, or view some mountain of human tragedy and not one tear falls. I have compassion, really I do, but it just surprises me that I never cry about much.

Of course, I’ve learned over the years that people grieve differently. Some cry hard and long and some don’t cry at all even though they are in profound grief. Everyone does grief work in their own way. I learned this personally when my mother passed away. I was in profound grief, but I just couldn’t cry. People were weeping at the funeral and I know that they must have wondered what was wrong with me.

In my experience, it seems that we are rather schizophrenic about grief and tears. In my twenty years in the Methodist Church, whenever there was a funeral, we would hold a wake at a funeral home so that people could come by and pay their respects to the deceased and to offer comfort to the spouse and family. It seemed to me that no one was comfortable with grief. Rarely did anyone wail out loud as they do in some countries. It seemed to me that the funeral home did all it could to shield the family from the congregation so that no one could see them grieving. Even worse, during the wake, people would file by the widow/widower and say some of the stupidest things you would ever hear. Here are a few examples: “Oh, he looks so good.” “I know you’re glad he’s gone.” “Time will heal all wounds.” “He’s gone to a better place.”

Why did they say such things? Of course, they genuinely cared for the grieving person and so they hoped to say something that would ease their grief. On the other hand, witnessing profound grief also made them feel uncomfortable. Truthfully, you can’t talk someone out of grief. The best thing to do is just be present and handle your own discomfort with grief. Even Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus.

Despite all of this, spiritually speaking, I am lachrymose intolerant. Apparently, in our Orthodox journey, we should strive to reach a state where tears flow easily. St John Climacus refers to tears often in his The Ladder of Divine Ascent; here are a few quotes:

  • “The Fathers have declared the singing of psalms to be a weapon, prayer to be a wall, and honest tears to be a bath.” [Step 4: On Obedience (p. 93)]
  • “The tears that come after baptism are greater than baptism itself, though it may seem rash to say so. Baptism washes off those evils that were previously within is, whereas the sins committed after baptism are washed away by tears. The baptism received by us as children we have all defiled, but we cleanse it anew with our tears.”  [Step 7: On Mourning (p. 137)]
  • “Regarding our tears, as in everything else about us, the good and just Judge will certainly make allowances for our natural attributes. I have seen small teardrops shed like drops of blood, and I have seen floods of tears poured out with no trouble at all. So I judge toilers by their struggles, rather than their tears; and I suspect that God does too.” [Step 7: On Mourning (p. 138)]

[The Ladder of Divine Ascent (Classics of Western Spirituality), tr. Luibheid and Russell, 1982, Paulist Press]

Well, St. John seems balanced about it. Tears aren’t an absolute guarantee of struggle, but so far my repentance has been tearless. I’m sorry for my sins, but not sorry enough to actually change myself. I’ve never sorry enough to cry about it. In the past, my sorrow has more about being caught and having to be accountable, or I am sorry that I have to suffer for the stupidity of my actions. But am I actually sorry about the sin itself? Not really. Am I ever sorry enough to cry about it? Never! Spiritually, my heart is pretty hard. Spiritually, I am lachrymose intolerant.

Here’s a funny thing though. Despite my usual lack of tears, just let me watch some silly movie and when the music wells up at the big climax, I’m crying into my popcorn. What’s up with that anyway? When I was a young boy, I remember watching “Old Yeller”. When the kid took the gun and shot Old Yeller, I was a ball of tears. I think I even cried walking home. This certainly wasn’t about any profound personal or spiritual struggle.

Isn’t it odd that I will cry for a movie dog, but not one tear for myself,  for real human tragedy, and not one for my Lord?

(for those who are lactose intolerant, please forgive this shameless play on words)