The Church often speaks of sin. Perhaps we have been guilty too often of morbid obsession in this regard. As often as not these days, on the other hand, it seems that the Church speaks too little of the reality of darkness. In both cases, the Church seems unable to speak with much inner authority or vitality: the weary have walked away; the darkness laughs, and breeds.
Only through the total embrace of love, absolute self-offering for the sake of all people, and the humble pursuit of virtue, to be able to give ourself away in love, have we any hope of delivering light and life to our human family and to our world.
God, give us your Spirit, that we might love.
But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord. (2Co 3:18)
Among the many losses within modern Christianity has been the place of transformation. Nineteenth century revival movements and theology emphasized a single experience that was associated with salvation. Those who concerned themselves with what came later, described growth in the Christian life as “sanctification,” and tended to imply that it was optional. Contemporary Christians have settled for a spiritual life in a plain brown wrapper ever since.
Though the word sanctification occurs in the New Testament, it is nowhere treated as subsequent to salvation itself. Being saved, in the pages of the New Testament, means the whole of our life with God. And the purpose of the whole of our life with God is to be transformed into the image of Christ from glory to glory. Anything else is simply not the Christian faith.
Many Christians recognize that a transformation is supposed to occur within a believer, but have adopted a model that postpones that change until after death. Thus we live in this world as one-time, once-and-for-all conversionists, and hope to simply wake up as saints in the life to come. And even this model is often weakened to a matter of heaven as paradise (imagined in starkly material forms).
The fullness of the Christian gospel, as found within Scripture and the Orthodox tradition, is radically committed to the transformation in this life of the believer.
Psychology Is Not Enough
In a self-help culture, saying that people need to change is merely an endorsement of what everyone already knows. But the movement sought within the culture needs no God. To become a better person (more fit, more affable, more kind, more considerate, etc.) is simply a description of a moral program. Morality has nothing particularly Christian about it. Morality is constituted by whatever agreed upon rules of behavior are desired at any given time. The psychological component of morality is no more than the interior adjustment to a desired behavior: behaving well and enjoying it.
The transformation wrought by Christ is the manifestation in this world of the Kingdom of God. In its fullness, it looks like the resurrected Christ Himself. It is the union of heaven and earth, the created and the uncreated. It is a transcendental reality.
That, of course, describes some few saints in some measure. But admittedly, it does not describe many, nor does it appear to describe Christians in general.
But this is a false judgment. In a psychological culture, morality and psychology are the only human realities we acknowledge. We do not see nor understand the nature of spiritual things. We are locked in a world of cause and effect and presume that everything works in such a manner. The landscape of psychological causes (and effects) is the world as we choose to see it. But it does not see the landscape of the Kingdom of God – that which is birthed in believers in their Baptism.
One of the great challenges in living an Orthodox Christian life is making the transition from psychology to true spirituality. Some teachers suggest that many will fail to do so – and will thus fail to realize the reality of their birthright in Christ.
To speak of this movement is difficult because we leave the world of cause and effect and step into the world of grace (though even the world of cause and effect is moment by moment sustained by grace). But grace works with faith and freedom – thus there is not cause and effect (else it would be forced upon us). It is this life of faith and freedom that are often so strange to us. We cling to what we know and reduce our understanding to a virtually mechanical world. There we engage in various therapies and moralities, which have the ability to change appearances but never the substance of reality.
I will use the Apostle Paul as an example in this article. He was an upright, moral man prior to becoming a Christian. He kept the Jewish law in the strictest possible manner as a member of the Pharisees. He was not a hypocrite. But neither did he know the true and living God. When he was converted on the road to Damascus, he did not suddenly take up a new moral code. He abandoned his moral ways and set himself on the road of grace. That path was one he described as “weakness.” He humbled himself. He emptied himself. He submitted to beatings and scourgings. He endured shipwrecks and the false accusations of his enemies.
But he is not a moral hero, or an example of great human achievement. What we see in his outward Christian life, is also the shape of his inmost heart. There, too, he strained towards what was impossible and beyond human reach. He pushed beyond what could be known in cause and effect. What he found was the very mystery of the Kingdom – union with God.
The result of this inward emptying can be seen in the fullness of grace God bestowed upon him. Miracles were worked even by cloths that had simply had contact with him. He raised the dead and cast out demons. He became so closely united to Christ that he could tell others to live as he lived.
From the outside, this manner of life can easily be mistaken for some version of moral psychology. But it is nothing of the sort. It is the impossible become reality, by the utter dependence upon the God of grace. As God told St. Paul, “My grace is enough.”
Moving from the psychological life to the spiritual life is often counter-intuitive. It sounds like it won’t work. To a certain degree it involves quitting. We quit trying to be good, and seek only to empty ourselves to God. The goodness of our lives thus becomes God’s goodness, and not our own.
The moral/psychological life is often one that cycles between effort, failure, shame and remorse only to begin again with renewed effort and promises of a better outcome. Some Christian lives never leave this cycle. It can be sheer misery. Most often it leads to disappointment and a quiet resignation to something less.
At first, embracing a spiritual life can feel like embracing failure. Indeed, it is embracing failure and weakness. The Elder Sophrony taught, “The way down is the way up.” It is, strangely, the only spiritual path that would actually be open to all believers. The worst of us can fail. Some of us learn to be very good at it!
Prayer as the emptying of self in the presence of God is a very different thing than great athletic efforts of well-kept rules. I have often advised people to keep a fast during Great Lent that is somewhat out of reach – for without some measure of failure during the fast we are in danger of reaching Pascha with a sense of satisfaction instead of true self-emptying gratitude.
Taken to an extreme, it is easy to ask (as was asked of St. Paul), “Should we continue in sin so that grace might abound?” St. Paul said “Of course not!” But the logic of the question flowed from his teaching and is more sound than the moral/psychological substitutes that others have put in its place.
But weakness is not sin. Failure is often not sin. Our emptiness is not sinful in the presence of God. True repentance (humility, brokenness, emptiness) is not a result of sin, but the return to our proper state before God.
Consider two kinds of prayer: in the first, we have a sense of the prayers that we plan to pray (say a morning service) and the psalms and readings for the day and we struggle through. It is quite possible to do this without reference to God. We are present to our prayers, but our prayers are not present to God. The heart can be completely untouched. We speak but we don’t weep.
In the second, we struggle for words. We are aware of just how unaware we are of God. We do not flee our emptiness or our brokenness, but we embrace them. And there in that place where we can do nothing of ourselves, we call on God who can do all things. And this is the restoration of our true relationship with God and our proper existence as human beings.
To enter into a true spiritual life we must leave behind cause and effect and abandon ourselves to the Ground where God causelessly causes. And having embraced such weakness, we stand without defense before those who would slander our way of life.
And this is the ground on which the saints stand. We cannot explain their existence. The transcendent goodness of their lives and deeds, the wonders worked at their hands – all appear to have come into existence “out of nothing.” But like the whole universe that surrounds us (which was itself causelessly caused) – they nevertheless exist.
And this is the change of Most High. Glory to His name!
Despite some talk about our “timeless unchanged Liturgy,” the Orthodox Divine Liturgy actually has undergone a number of changes since the days of the apostles, and even from the days of the second century. This is a good thing, for everything that lives changes and grows and develops. The prayers to the Babylonian god Marduk have not changed in rather a while, for devotion to Marduk is stone dead; the prayers to the God of the Christians have changed over time, for devotion to our God remains strong. The changes in the Liturgy therefore witness to its dynamic life and its importance to believers.
As mentioned in our previous article, in the days of the apostles the Eucharistic partaking of Bread and Wine occurred as the culmination of a full supper on Sunday evening, as witnessed to by the words of the apostle Paul to the Corinthians. At the Lord’s Supper in Corinth, “each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk” (1 Cor. 11:21). Paul had some words of rebuke for this scandalous situation, but his words at least reveal that the Bread and Wine were part of an actual meal in the mid-first century. But by the time of St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (who was martyred about 107 A.D.), the meal (now called an agape, or “love feast”) was held separately from the actual Eucharist. We know this because Ignatius wrote to the church at Smyrna that they should consider as valid only “a Eucharist” at which the bishop or his delegate presided, and that furthermore, apart from the approval of the bishop, it was “not lawful either to baptize or to hold an agape.” Clearly the agape had by this time been separated from the Eucharist, for technical terms had already been coined for both.
We also know a bit about what the Eucharistic service was like. St. Justin the Philosopher (aka “Justin Martyr”) wrote about it a few decades after the time of St. Ignatius, in about 155 A.D. In his day, people were slandering the Christians as cannibals, saying that we ate babies at our secret services. They also accused us of incestuous orgies—all this Christian talk about “the Kiss” and “the brothers and the sisters.” In response, Justin wrote his Apology (or “defense”), in which he broke with Christian tradition by describing for outsiders what went on in the Christian worship. He did this with a kind of studied naivety, as if saying, “Here’s what we actually do. Is there some sort of problem with any of this?”
Thus in several chapters, he describes the Christian’s weekly worship as consisting of:
1. “The memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets” are read “for as long as time permits.”
2. The president of the assembly “verbally instructs” the congregation and “exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”
3. Prayers of intercession are offered “for all others in every place.”
4. The Christians “salute one another with a kiss.” (Note, O pagan: no orgy involved.)
5. “Bread and a cup of wine mixed with water” are “brought to the president of the brethren.”
6. The president “offers prayers and thanksgivings” over the bread and cup “according to his ability.”
7. The people respond to the prayer by saying “Amen” which, as Justin says, means “so be it.”
8. The people partake of the bread and the cup. Justin explains at length that this food which is called “the Eucharist” is “the flesh and blood of Jesus,” who told us to do this, calling the bread His body and the cup His blood. (Note again, O pagan: no cannibalism.)
9. “To those who were absent a portion is sent by the deacons.”
Justin further adds that all of this was done on Sunday, “the day on which we all hold our common assembly.”
One can immediately see that the basic structure of the Eucharist as described by St. Justin in the middle of the second century is that of our Orthodox Divine Liturgy today. All of the churches in both the east and the west conformed to this basic pattern, though, of course, the words of the prayers varied. Indeed, each pastor/ bishop made up his own thanksgiving prayer (or “anaphora”) in those early years, with standardization and use of a written model coming only much later. The “unchanging” part of our Liturgy is found in this basic structure, and even here certain additions were made, especially in the east.
One of these additions was the insertion at the beginning of the service of what we today call “the Antiphons.” These were psalms with a repeated refrain sung as the congregation processed through the town on the way to church. Obviously such a public display of faith could only take place after the Empire was well on its way to being Christianized. But these parades (“stations” they were called, because the parade would stop several times for prayer) were immensely popular, and people wanted to sing the songs even on days when there was no “station” or parade. Thus these psalms and prayers found their way into the beginning of the Liturgy.
Another addition was that of the Trisagion hymn, which was originally one of these songs. The Trisagion itself (“Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal, have mercy on us”) was the refrain for the psalm, and the whole psalm with the refrain was used as an entry chant. The psalm eventually fell out (leaving only the “Glory…Now and ever” as a vestige), leaving the repeated refrain standing by itself. But people liked singing this hymn, with or without the psalm, and it secured a place in the Liturgy, after the Antiphons.
Another addition was that of the Nicene Creed. Originally the Creed was only used at baptisms, as the candidate’s confession of faith. But in the sixth century, the monophysite bishop of Constantinople inserted it into the Liturgy as a kind of ecclesiastical manoeuver to please the Emperor. None of his successors wanted to be known as the bishop who removed the venerable Creed from the Liturgy, and so the Creed remained embedded there. Over the succeeding centuries, it has proved to be a fortunate insertion, and perhaps shows that God can use even ecclesiastical maneuvering for His purposes.
Other parts of the Liturgy have been fancied up with the years. The simple bringing to the president of the bread and wine has become the beautiful and stately “Great Entrance.” Obviously the vestments the clergy wear have been brocaded and adorned over time, and the musical settings made more elaborate also. But in its basic structure, our present Liturgy means and does the same things as it always did. If Justin the Philosopher could step from a time machine and attend our Divine Liturgy today, he might wonder about a number of things (pews, for one). But as the service progressed, I imagine he would feel very much at home.
Life as we know it is fragile, and can change or end suddenly. Such change or end need not find us unprepared. We have only to give ourselves completely in love, and in love we are prepared for all things.
All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.