The Visitor

I wanted to share with you, my dear friend, about a visit I had today with somebody different, or at least they seemed that way to me, at first. You may judge for yourself, of course, as to who and what he is, and what significance he has, if any, and why I should take the trouble to tell you about him.

I think you’ll be surprised, however, because he’s not who you thought he was, nor who you are thinking he might be now, as I am beginning to tell my story…his story. Well, our story I suppose, since it is a fact of life that when any two of us meet, and share space and time together, our stories intermingle—becoming one—it is impossible for this not to occur. My story becomes his, and his becomes mine, and together our story joins with your own.

He is a young man, by appearances in his early thirties, tall and thin. He wears a ski-cap, camouflage: tan, green, and darker green, tight to his head, wisps of brown hair curling out at the back. He has shaved recently, but not too recently, so his face is covered with a reddish-brown stubble not quite long enough to get a hold of with finger and thumb.

He has a service dog, a German-Shepherd, mostly dark-haired but with a little light-brown on his muzzle and on his chest. He’s a good, quiet boy, but alert. His eyes are golden brown and constantly scan his surroundings. He’s seven, with good hips for a shepherd, and he can still run ten miles easy in a day, but he’s a little slow to get up the next morning, I guess he is slowing down a bit.

The young man likes the Bible and can quote from it fairly well. He thinks perhaps he should be a pastor, or a motivational speaker, but then, he doesn’t like talking in front of large groups of people. If he had to do that he thinks he might shit himself, at least that is how he puts it. Still, he likes to share with people, and help them if he can, he likes to let them know how much God loves them. Of this fact, he is certain.

Today, he has a little sign near his feet which reads: “Hebrews 13:1-5”. This is a Bible verse of course. It is a really good and important verse, he let me know, and though many people know John 3:16, and maybe something from Revelation, this one people should know as well. I’ll tell you more about that soon, just let me share a few other things first.

He prefers one-on-one conversations, it’s easier this way, and not so intimidating. He meets a lot of people every day, but he’s lonely, his only real friend is his dog. It’s been six years since he last had a girlfriend—just to mention that in passing—although this doesn’t seem to bother him; it is just a little information to back up the fact that he’s alone. He does have one guy who lives not far from his place up in the hills, he buys that guy and his dog pizza now and then, so he guesses they are friends.

When his little baby brothers were born, his heart burst with joy and love for them. He has two little brothers, and he has many joyful memories of those little boys. But other memories of his childhood are not so joyful, and some haunt his dreams even to this day. Back in the early 1990’s, when he was a little boy himself, he had been very energetic and precocious. People no longer understood by then, that this is merely the definition of boyhood, but somehow saw it as an illness instead. (I remember my own childhood in the 1970’s when people, thankfully, still understood that high energy was just a normal trait of boyhood.) In order to manage this supposed “illness” he was put on Ritalin and Zoloft in high doses. After that he had a lot of difficulty: his parents divorced, and his mom remarried a very large and intimidating man who enjoyed beating up children. His new stepfather was 6′-6″ tall and weighed about 260 pounds and had difficulty controlling his anger. On several occasions, after his step-father beat him, he would need to be taken to the hospital to recover. He was only ten. Now, decades later, he still suffers from nightmares, horrible remembrances, and wakes from them, shaking and terrified of this very large and intimidating man.

Dear friend, I almost didn’t meet this young man today. He was standing on the sidewalk at the entrance to Lowe’s as I drove past; his back was turned to me but I happened to see the cardboard sign he held asking for help which also mentioned that he suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. I pulled over and walked back to meet him.

For months I have been wandering, in a sense—not literally—but in the depths of my soul. Let me briefly share about this, only briefly, because this is his story, not mine. I have been homeless, in the depths of my heart, estranged from God, angry at him for the death of my mother, the deaths of my brother and father, and of many others whom I love. Yet, for me, God is my only home and without daily prayer and communion with Him, I am homeless. Nevertheless, how can one pray in love to someone whom they are vehemently angry against? It is extremely difficult to love the one we are hating, though we may want to love them, yet we can’t find the ability to stop hating. But then recently it occurred to me that I had misplaced my anger, directing it to the wrong person, and I had been wrong.

Let me tell you, there was something this young man said while we visited that struck me because of its relevance to my situation, and because of the certainty with which he said it; in fact, there were several things he said, not merely one, with such conviction and personal experience that I joyfully listened to this preacher:

“I have never hated God, I’m not angry at God,” he said, “God has never hurt me, only people have hurt me.” He added, “We can’t be angry at God for this, God only loves us. I wish so much that people could understand how much God loves them. If only people knew how much they are loved I think there would be no more wars, nobody would be angry at each other, our world would be peaceful. I just want people to know how much they are loved by God. I know this by experience. I experience Jesus right beside me, I feel him and know with certainty that He exists. I suffer a lot but it is God’s plan for me and I learn from it. This is where I am supposed to be.”

He continued, “I see God easily, I understand the patterns, most people can’t see the patterns or understand them in this world, but they all point to God. I’m good at seeing patterns. I have an IQ of 142; that is supposed to be a genius they say, I am pretty smart. I was tested when I was in the mental hospital. I was there for several years when I was younger. I was also tested bi-polar which is true. My mom says that none of the things ever happened with my step-father, that he never beat me, she says I’m a liar and schizophrenic but she isn’t right, that isn’t true, they tested me for that and I’m not schizophrenic or schizoid disorder, I’m bi-polar and have Aspergers. You’ve probably noticed that I can’t look you in the eyes when we talk (which I had noticed), I have a really hard time with that and I can get nervous around people, sometimes I lose my temper also. And I have anxiety around people, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like them, I do. When I’m anxious I sometimes pull at the hairs in my mustache and I actually pull them out, so then I have to shave so that it all grows in evenly again.”

“I can’t keep a job. I’m unable to do it for more than a few weeks. I get social security though but it isn’t enough to get through the month so I stand here and get a little extra. We live in a tent northeast of here. I ride my bike and he runs alongside with me. I grew up in this area so I know the hills very well so I found a safe, quiet place to live. I buy propane for a heater and it stays nice and warm in my tent, I actually have to turn off the heater around 4am in the morning it gets so warm.”

“People think I do drugs but I don’t. Well, I do smoke pot and that helps me. But I will not do meth or heroin or anything like that. I’ve never done it and never will. I don’t want anything to do with that. Someone asks me on the street to join them and I just tell them I won’t and then I need to leave and get away from them. I don’t want it. That path is just death and hell. Those people doing that (drugs) don’t know God, they don’t feel his presence and so they don’t know the way of life.”

“I have seen hell, I’ve experienced it and I know about it. People think about hell and how unfair it is that God would put someone in that awful place forever but they don’t understand. It is outside time, it isn’t ruled by time. Like when you eat too much for Thanksgiving and then you fall asleep, you sleep for an hour, deeply, and then wake up and feel as if you had slept for an eternity. God operates like that, hell is outside of time like God. I have lucid dreams, I had one where I stood in front of a brown podium with a judge dressed all in black and someone stood beside me, I couldn’t see Him but I knew He was there and was my friend. The judge lowered his head and I knew I had lost. I turned and they opened a vault door, you know the kind that are round and solid steel like you see in movies or cartoons, they opened it and there was a volcano inside and I had to walk into it and Jesus was beside me walking with me. I didn’t want to walk into it but I couldn’t stop myself, I had to walk and we walked into it together, then there was a metal walkway, narrow, a grate, and I could see, literally, a lake of fire below me, and I could feel the heat on all of the walls, they were glowing and I could feel myself being roasted. Jesus turned to me and we looked each other in the eyes and he asked me, ‘You know this is hell don’t you?’ And I replied, ‘Yes, but that’s okay, it isn’t forever.’ And He smiled at me, just a little smile like a father would give a son who he approves of, and with that smile He said to me, ‘well done’. I woke up from that dream, ‘what the hell?’ it was terrifying, but I knew that really was Jesus with me and I was safe. I’ve known Him forever, and He has known me forever.”

The young man went on talking to me for quite some time; he talked about his life on the street, the exorbitant cost of getting his bicycle repaired, his hopes of getting into housing someday, and how people love his dog, who, sensing his opportunity, he got up from his place in the nearby groundcover, and nuzzled me for a little attention. The young man lamented that people worry and care more about his dog than about him. “He’s a dog after all! He’s just a dog and he loves living out here. I mean look at him, he’s eating a weed right now.” Truly, he seemed very pleased with himself as he rooted and dug about in the plants. “If he was to walk by a dog in a house he’d probably be like ‘Man I feel sorry for you!’ And every morning when I open up the tent he jumps out and chases a squirrel or two, does his business and loves it. But people are sad for him living on the street and they figure I deserve it. It must be my own fault. I must be doing drugs.”

He stopped talking, and looked at me briefly, and smiled one of the sweetest and simplest smiles I’ve seen, without artifice or irony, but with slightly saddened eyes; yet, I swear to you, in his eyes were a magnificent depth of peace and joy intermingled with the sadness, so that I felt for a moment that I was looking into the eyes of an angel. I couldn’t help but love him. After this brief flash he turned away from me again, characteristically, looking into the distance as he spoke.

Our visit ended after a time, and later in the day I was trying to remember which verse it was that he had written on the cardboard sign at his feet. I wanted to look it up when suddenly he texted me (I had texted him my number so we could stay in touch.) asking me to please continue to help people who are in need, and he included the verse in his text:

“Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. Keep your lives free from love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

 *  *  *

~FS

Man’s Heart As The Dwelling Place of God

God created man’s heart as His own dwelling place; it is man’s purpose to find this “deep heart” and to dwell there in communion with the Lord (Psalm 64:6) (The Hidden Man of the Heart, p.1). But finding our heart and remaining there is a challenge because it is man’s habit to extend his consciousness out into the world, immersing himself in his senses, and distracting himself with passionate desires to satisfy his prideful, selfish identity.

In scripture we are told to purify ourselves and to keep our heart with all diligence so that God will meet us there, but the passions (ie. gluttony, lust, greed, sadness, apathy, anger, fear, vanity and pride) and the distractions of our mind draw us out of our heart so that we live our lives outside and not from within our hearts (p.2).

We are told by the Fathers of the Church that “when all his being (man’s) is gathered in the unity of his mind and heart, there is a third kind of movement in which he turns his whole being over to God the Father” (p.6). But until we discover and develop the ability to find and dwell in our heart, we cannot make this effort to give ourselves to God, as we are instead, essentially slaves to sin, voluntarily and involuntarily giving ourselves to our passions and not to God.

How do we find our heart? To begin, humility draw’s man back into his heart, away from the hard-hearted pride of his life, and by humility man’s heart is softened (p.6). Humility helps man recognize the vanity of his life and the foolishness of his choices, and sets him on the path back to God.

Further, in humility, as man considers the shortness of his life, and his inevitable death, this awareness of his death carries him onward into a state of mourning for his life, and this inner state of spiritual mourning is transforming and very good for him (p.8). This mindfulness of death can horrify man and cause him to seek God; it also can give clarity as to the vanity of his life and his worldly pursuits, so that he begins to desire spiritual treasures rather than earthly ones (p.21).

In his despair of physical death, man then sees his only hope in God, and he struggles within himself to find God, fighting against his passions and his mind’s distractions which come between him and true relationship with God, so that he can find God in his heart, the place God created for union with man (p.24).

The “cultivation of the heart” includes both prayer and repentance as essential activities. Prayer especially focuses our attention on God. The Church Fathers stress the importance of continual prayer with the name of Jesus so as to keep the mind ceaselessly focused on Christ, helping to free the mind from its habitual distractions (p.8). In coordination with prayer they also stress the importance of vigilance and watchfulness of our mind’s thoughts and of the activity of our passions, so that we can, in time, gain the upper hand over these things acting within us (p.65).

Repentance helps man see his reality clearly—who man truly is in relation to God—and paves the way for man’s return to God (p.9). The place of the deep heart in man is concealed by vanity (p.47). Through genuine repentance man turns his entire being back towards God, it is the mourning over his sins that allows man to turn away from them, forsaking his former life and opening his heart to God. As we bear our shame in relation to God, trusting in His love and mercy, we open to His grace and salvation (p.53). Love and trust in God grows out of an initial fear of Him; we can’t but feel a little fear if we are honest about our sin, see it clearly in the light of God’s power and justice. The writer of Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7). But this is only the first step, as wisdom leads us into true love—born from an initial fear—but transforming our sinfulness into nobility, pride and vanity are conquered within us and love for God and our neighbor increases.

The Church Fathers say that “prayer is the highest and most noble activity of the human spirit” (p.69). They also state that prayer is the activity of love, and that in prayer to God for ourselves and for others we show our love for man and God. For anyone concerned with the health of others—particularly as pastors and counselors—but anyone who has begun the cultivation of their own heart in the ways described here, first and foremost we can offer ourselves as living examples to others, and then we can encourage them also to live in this way, guiding them to find their own hearts as the meeting place between themselves and God.

I wrote this a while back, as an encouragement to pray and to watch our thoughts, as we work to find our heart:

Watching and Praying

Where does your mind wander? Have you ever witnessed your consciousness extending out beyond yourself, becoming lost in the world of what you see, and what you hear, taste, touch or smell? Have you noticed? Have you watched this as it happens, been attentive to the way you lose yourself in your thoughts throughout the day?

And what happens when you pray, can you find yourself again? Have you felt your consciousness return to you when you walk alone beneath the trees, or when you meditate upon the truth of Love? What peace do you feel, when all that you’ve scattered abroad in this wide world comes back to you and rests safely again within your heart? You are yours once more…

I saw myself leave myself today; extending my thoughts to the objects of my love, reaching out with my soul, dissipating my concentration and my energy just a little bit; so I prayed with thanks to God for all things, and called upon His mercy.  As I prayed, I felt myself returning to myself, and I felt peace; and I saw more clearly the objects of my love, as they exist outside of myself, but didn’t allow myself to be drawn out of my heart by any of them. As I prayed, I could love them without strings attached; simply with freedom and in purity.

When you lose yourself, if you do, have you ever tried to make prayer your constant companion; letting the words of your prayer and the meaning beneath the words permeate you, protect you, and draw you back in again? Do you call upon God’s grace continually, or struggle towards that goal? It is a difficult habit to inculcate but one that promises to add peace to our steps.

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Archimandrite Zacharias (2013). The Hidden Man of The Heart: The Cultivation of the Heart in Orthodox Christian Anthropology. Dalton, PA: Mount Thabor Press.

~FS

Virtue as the Health of Mankind

The Fathers of the Church agree that man’s original state, prior to the Fall from grace, consisted of man—made in the image and likeness of God. Not that man is no longer, following the Fall, a being made in the image and likeness of his Creator, but prior to the Fall man lived out this reality in all of its fullness whereas after the Fall, man retains the image but essentially has lost the likeness.

In this original state, furthermore, man lived free from sin and free from illness and death. These all being a result of the Fall of Mankind. So that illness and death can be seen as a consequence of the Fall and a direct manifestation of man’s turning away from God whereas prior to this man lived naturally in a state of health, living virtuously and without the specter of death plaguing him.

The original state was that of an ideal human nature, “a synergy of Adam’s free will and of divine grace” (Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, vol.1, p.10). Man was created with the intention that he use his free will in order to attain to ever greater realms of “likeness” with his Creator, so that he might attain ever higher levels and degrees of “perfection”. This ideal human nature constituted the health of his being in soul and in body.

Man was originally oriented towards God in all of his being, and he was created to find his fulfillment only in God (Therapy, vol.1, p.10). Fulfillment in God was the original condition of man’s perfect health, and it was the content and definition of man’s state of health.

To facilitate man’s perfection, God created man with spiritual faculties which he was to use in seeking deeper and greater relationship with his Creator. He was given an intellect capable of knowing God, a free will enabling him to direct his whole being towards God, and desire and love allowing him to be united to God (vol.1, p.15). When man turned these natural faculties away from their natural aim, that of God, he lost his natural state of health along with his ability to know God.

Man’s perfect health is achieved when all of his faculties are directed and exerted with God as their goal; because this aligns with man’s nature and is the fulfillment of the faculties that God implanted naturally within man. God, as the goal of man, is not an unnatural end, but rather is the original and entire purpose and end of man.

Sin, or separation from God, consists in man turning away from Him as the goal, missing the mark as we often hear sin described as, and illness is the result—spiritual illness of course, but also emotional, mental and physical. All illness traces its origins to mankind’s turning away from God.

Healing consists in turning all of man’s faculties back towards God again (vol.1, p.11). Not that this results in the immediate healing of every disease, but it forms a basis, a foundation for mankind’s health.

Man was made perfect, but only relatively perfect; he was made with potential to attain greater perfection through the alignment of his faculties with God’s will and grace (vol.1, p.16). In this way man, as the image of God, was intended to grow in “likeness” to God by the activity of his faculties directed towards God as his end.

Man was made virtuous, but with the potential to grow in virtue. Mankind’s virtue was made in the image of God but with the capacity to develop in participation with God’s plan and in this way man would grow in God’s likeness (vol.1, p.17). Sin has separated man from God’s plan but virtue enables man to find his way back.

“Be Holy, as I am Holy” (Leviticus 20:26) and “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). God admonishes and encourages mankind to remember and to return to his original purpose and to his original health.

The Fathers of the Church describe man’s activity before the Fall, as that in which man prayed continually, he praised and glorified God ceaselessly, contemplating God always, and acting as an intermediary between the created world and uncreated God (vol.1, p.19). Mankind’s joy and delight consisted of contemplating God through the creation; man didn’t seek his satisfaction and happiness in creation alone, or apart from God, but rather by knowing God through His creation. In this constant awareness and contemplation of God, as manifested in the created world, man experienced sweetness, delight, joy and bliss (vol.1, p.20).

Though mankind as a whole is far from living this way now, after the Fall—he is still created in God’s image, and with this same purpose and potential to achieve God’s likeness. Before the Fall man lived according to the virtues and didn’t know illness (vol.1, p.21), after the Fall, man knows illness and death, but can still learn virtue again, and follow in this path to greater wholeness, even if not to perfect health again in this life.

Virtue still represents health in mankind. “What health is for the living body, virtue is with respect to the soul” (St Maximus the Confessor) (p.35). The Fall of mankind puts man in a much more difficult position, under sin and the penalty of death, however, in another sense it has changed nothing insofar as who and what mankind is and was we are made to be; mankind is still a creature created in the image and likeness of God, with the potential to act freely in accord with God’s will and His grace.

“Only by practicing the virtues, and in particular their crown—compassion—is man, made capable of the knowledge/spiritual contemplation in which the spirit, but also his other faculties, exert themselves in accordance with their nature’s goal” (p.35). Love is the ultimate health of mankind—God is love—and through selfless love, compassion, mankind can attain to health of spirit, mind and body enroute to his goal—union with God.

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Larchet, J. (2012). Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, Vol.1. Montreal: Alexander Press.

~FS

Steps To Heal Sadness & Anger

The passion of sadness develops through man’s misuse of the virtuous, godly sadness which was given to man for the purpose of repentance and to rid us of the evil within us (Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, vol.1, p.186). This passion comes about as man turns from the proper use of sadness, towards the wrong use of it, whereby he/she is overcome by emotions and thoughts detrimental to his/her health. This passion generally arises over the loss of sensual things, material goods, or by way of unfulfilled pleasures and desires (Therapy, vol.1, p.186). However, in addition, more than many other of the passions, pathological sadness also comes about through demonic activity, and can appear to come out of nowhere, inexplicably (vol.1, p.187). Since this sadness often comes about by an attachment to worldly things, an attachment to earthly life, anything that threatens this life can be a source of sadness, such as illness and of course, death (vol.1, p.188).

Another common and strong link to sadness is the related passion of anger, and this passion also is a source of sadness. Sadness often follows on the heels of anger (vol.1, p.189). Man misuses his anger by directing it outward towards others and because of this he feels sadness and isolation; he becomes alienated from others and from God.

Sadness is also man’s response to feeling himself under attack in any way that hurts his self-love, and which injures his image of himself; in this way when pride and vanity are injured man responds both with anger and also with sadness (vol.1, p.189). As these feelings develop, man will also exhibit additional symptoms, related feelings and expressions of despair, spitefulness, resentment, bitterness, rancor and impatience which he then will direct upon others. “For this reason, sadness greatly disturbs man’s relationship with his neighbor” (vol.1, pp.193-194).

As with all of the passions, the treatment for sadness is two-fold and involves turning away from the passion, as a vice, and simultaneously turning towards the associated virtue (vol.2, part 4). The healing of passions involves making the right use of the original gift that God gave to man, directing the gift in the proper direction and acting upon it in the correct way. As with other passions, the healing of sadness first requires that the person desires to be healed, because often people derive pleasure from this passion, they take delight in sadness (vol.3, p.49).

The Fathers offer many solutions or therapies for sadness, few of which are easy, particularly their recommendation to renounce carnal desires and pleasures and to cultivate a detachment from worldly things and attitudes (vol.3, p.50). The idea being that if one is indifferent to something then there can be no morbid sorrow over the loss of anything. However, at the same time as one detaches from all earthy cares one should simultaneously replace this sadness associated with the loss of everything earthly, with the virtuous sadness which arises from the realization of our spiritual poverty (vol.3, p.50). Virtuous sadness, compunction and grief at being separated from God, being deprived of spiritual goods and the negative effects of our sins help heal us of the passion of sadness (vol.3, p.55).

Also, the Fathers advise anyone afflicted with the passion of sadness to cultivate a disdain for worldly honors and glory, since the desire for these things excites our pride and vanity and this is a deep source of human sadness (vol.3, p.51). In place of seeking accolades one should foster humility by seeking abasement. And by accusing ourselves and judging ourselves, we liberate ourselves from sadness, by pulling a source of sadness (pride) out from under it (vol.3, p.53).

Since sadness alienates the sufferer and often causes them to seek isolation it is beneficial for the healing of sadness to be in the company of others; human companionship can help with healing sadness (vol.3, p.52). Additionally, the sufferer of sadness, in the company of a spiritual father, or other compassionate presence can find healing by the administration of consoling words, and by spiritual discourse which elevates, enlightens and mollifies the severity of sorrowful thoughts (vol.3, p.53).

While all of the aforementioned remedies for sadness are important and helpful, perhaps the most efficacious method for the healing of sadness is prayer. “Prayer, in all its forms, forms the main cure for sadness, no matter the latter’s source. Prayer is the antidote for sadness and discouragement,” especially prayer of the heart accompanied with vigilance and attentiveness to recognize and guard against negative or demonic thoughts (vol.3, p.54). And the one who suffers from sadness, while they pray first for themselves, they should also cultivate prayer for others, for the whole world, for out of this act of charity and love one can destroy the effects of passionate sadness (vol.3, p.71).

Closely related to sadness is the passion of anger and, like sadness, it is by the misuse of the anger that man develops this passion. God originally gave man anger to fight against sin and temptation and this was its sole purpose (vol.1, p.203). Instead, we direct our anger against one another and thereby create untold suffering. From this misdirection of our anger we develop bad moods, irritation, impatience, indignation, mockery and scoffing towards our neighbor (vol.1, p.204). We rejoice at other’s misfortunes, and become sad at the successes of those we don’t like, and this is completely backwards to how we were created to be—we take pleasure in our anger, and our pleasures become the cause of our anger; for we put pleasure ahead of loving our neighbor (vol.1, p.206).

It is our attachment to ourselves and our attachment to material resources, our self-love, our pride and vanity that cause our anger (vol.1, p.207) and then we become attached to our anger, and in time our anger overwhelms us; man begins to act like a crazy person, irrational and incapable of reasoned thought (vol.1, p.210).

Anger cuts man off from relationship with God, and corrupts our likeness to the divine image. As this occurs, the Holy Spirit retreats and man is thrust into spiritual darkness, the mind becomes incapable of contemplation (vol.1, p.214).  Anger obstructs our prayers, destroys our love for one another, and is the cause of spiritual death in man (vol.1, p.215), anger then leads man on to timidity, apathy, sadness and further pridefulness (vol.1, p.216).

Instead, anger was designed and given by God to draw man closer to Him, by directing man’s anger against anything that came between man and God—evil, temptation, sinfulness etc. In order to heal man of the passion of anger and restore the proper use and function of anger, the Fathers of the Church recommend the cultivation of humility (vol.3, p.85), and the giving of money and food to the poor (vol.3, p.83).

Acts of service, love of others, compassion and self-abasement are sure-fire ways to subvert our pride and vanity and terminate the sadness and anger that arises from our self-love; a healthy love of our neighbor and of God cures us of our unhealthy love of ourselves.

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Larchet, J. (2012). Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, Vol. 1-3. Montreal: Alexander Press.

~FS

Hypostatic Theology & YOU

Father Sophrony expands upon the hypostatic theology of earlier church fathers by relating it to the processes of deification of mankind. The Godhead can be defined as a union of three hypostases, three unique persons in a loving union, each bearing the totality of the other two, and yet at the same time maintaining their own individual and unique characteristics.

Together, the three persons, or hypostases, of the Godhead form the complete Godhead, and yet individually they are also fully God. And the fundamental aspect of this relationship between them is that of love—a self-sacrificing, self-emptying kind of love. Most importantly, for humanity, is the sacrificial and obedient love that the Son, Jesus Christ, embodies in His love for the Father. Jesus does His Father’s will, He doesn’t act of His own, or for His own purposes, but only for the purposes of His Father.

This is important for mankind because it shows the template for our own existence. Were God only God, and man only man, there would be no relationship between the hypostatic characteristics of God and those of mankind. But man however, has been created in the image and likeness of God, and God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, the son of God. Therefore God has imparted to man the potential to be like Him, to be divine, and to have a godlike life. This means that we can love just as God loves, and this is the goal and purpose of mankind.

The sad and profound consequence of the fall is that man is alienated from God and from other human beings. He sees himself set apart from others in a competition for resources; love, food, other material comforts and emotional satisfactions. While man lives in this way, enslaved to his physical and material impulses he remains divorced from his true nature and the essence of himself. In many ways he is not truly human yet, but living more like a beast satisfying his carnal nature. It is only God’s grace, through the person of Jesus Christ, which can lift man out of this morass, and raise him to the divine heights which he was originally created to experience.

Fallen, sinful man retains the image of God within himself but is far from manifesting the likeness of God. This process of attaining the likeness of God is the process of deification which occurs over the lifetime of the follower of Christ, and is the uncovering of the hypostatic reality, the true personhood, of each human being. A man discovers his own hypostasis as he sheds his false self—his small self—made up of pride and ambitions, vanity, and every other type of passions which rage within him.

Most importantly man learns true humility and repents of his former life. From these initial acts of self-emptying, which must be undertaken again and again throughout his life, he opens himself to the spirit of God, or rather God’s grace opens man, and enables him to turn from his old man towards his new regenerated man, towards his true hypostasis.  Man’s true self is only found when he discovers himself in the image and likeness of God.

The life of man is wrapped up in the life of Christ. As Jesus did His Father’s will, so we are intended to be obedient to Christ. His commands show us the way to our true personhood. His life is an example and a template for us, as he shows us how to live a life of obedience, a life of self-sacrifice, and a life of love towards others—towards the Father, and towards all of humanity. As we allow our minds to be transformed by the workings of the Holy Spirit, our center of existence moves outward, away from our self-centeredness towards an other-centeredness. We begin to love God more purely, and to love others as ourselves. We come to understand the love that God has for us, and because He first loved us, we begin to love more as well.

Father Sophrony teaches that the hypostasis of the Son and His earthly life can teach us everything we need to know about our own hypostasis; we can understand ourselves in light of Christ. His life of self-emptying; personally taking on humble humanity even though He is God Himself, His prayer for all mankind and His obedience to God in the garden of Gethsemane even crying tears of blood, and His ultimate selflessness in suffering upon the cross and in His descent into Hell, all show us the way that is intended for us as well. Our fulfillment is in learning His love, and taking His way upon ourselves as well, following in the way of the cross.

Father Sophrony teaches that mankind is unified, each individual being a complete representation of the entire race past, present and future, in much the same way that each hypostasis of the trinity encompasses the entire Godhead. Therefore as each of us comes to know the truth of himself, his hypostatic reality, he simultaneously comes to know and understand all of mankind. So we can love mankind like Christ loves us, bringing all of mankind into our sphere of concern. We can pray as Christ prays, for the whole ‘Adam’ as Father Sophrony puts it, meaning the whole of humanity. In fact, this is the inevitable result of deification, because, as we become in the likeness of the Godhead, we lose our alienation and our self-orientation, and we are reoriented outwardly, manifesting love for all others, because this is the essence and nature of God, and therefore it is also the essence and nature of man, who is made in God’s image and likeness.

~FS

 

Reflections on The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life

Elder Sophrony teaches that there are three stages in the spiritual life for anyone embarking on the spiritual journey. While he maintains that everyone’s path is unique and each individual’s path has particular details specific to each person, still these three basic stages occur for everyone, in some way or another, because they are true to the human experience, and they are characteristic of God’s plan for mankind.

God desires for man to use his free will to seek Him, and to love Him. But in man’s fallen state, as slaves to sin, man needs God’s help and strength to achieve this. God’s grace empowers man to accomplish God’s plan for man. Without this grace man will remain a slave to sin. So it is that the first stage of the spiritual path, as described by Elder Sophrony, involves the gift of grace showered upon man. Elder Sophrony likens this first stage to the miracle of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea (Remember, 44), it is the power of God enabling us to cross over from enslavement to sin into freedom of union with God.

This first spiritual stage isn’t just metaphorical, or simply symbolic, but has a reality in time and space for each believer. Elder Sophrony says that in most cases it occurs at the time of our baptism, whether as children or as adults, and that this stage lasts from a very short period of time, to as many as about seven years, depending upon the individual and God’s plan for them. It is marked by an abundance of God’s grace in our lives, and through increased gifts of spiritual ability. It is a time when we feel His presence without difficulty and when we experience His responses to our pleas, to our prayers, in more vivid and tangible ways. This first stage is a time of encouragement to help spur us on to live the spiritual life, and to make efforts to live according to His commands. During this first stage, the believer doesn’t yet meet with many obstructions or difficulties to his spiritual progress, or if he does meet with these, God’s presence and grace give the believer extra ability to overcome and find victory. In a sense, stage one is a time when we still have our training wheels on, and this helps us from falling.

But because of God’s desire that we love him freely, and of our own accord, this first stage eventually gives way to the second stage, in which He withdraws his abundance of grace from us in order that we learn to make spiritual progress, by degrees, more through our own efforts and less through His, although we never can do this entirely without His help. According to Elder Sophrony this second stage is typically of the longest duration, often making up the bulk of our lives. It is comprised of our spiritual struggles and battles against the passions, and it is especially intended by God as the time when we must learn first-hand true and deep humility, repentance, and additionally when we practice spiritual endurance and perseverance.  The second stage is the believer’s time in the wilderness when he may call upon God and not experience His answer, when he may seek the Lord and yet fail to feel His presence. It is also a dangerous time when the believer can easily fall aside into despondency or even into rebellion to some degree. Here we may find ourselves in a metaphorical desert, a spiritual dry place, and apparently dead. The second stage is a difficult period, a time of testing in which we seemingly tread forward alone, without help. Even so God does not abandon us entirely, and this time also may be marked by moments of encouragement, divine appearances, and simple miracles to help us on our way. Here the training wheels have been taken off and we can fall, we likely will from time to time, but God wants it this way, that we learn to act in our own power, using the gifts He has given us, even when there seems to be no victory in sight. In this way we slowly make the spiritual life our own, we discover depths of humility through the suffering we experience, and we develop a life of repentance, turning towards God again and again and again.

Finally, eventually the believer experiences the third stage of the spiritual life. Elder Sophrony explains that for most people this stage is encountered near, or at the end of our earthly lives. Therefore, it is a relatively short period as compared especially with the second stage. In this stage the believer experiences a return to the abundant grace he experienced in the first stage, but this time he is a full participant in his this life of the spirit whereas before, he was merely enjoying the benefits of God’s abundant mercies and the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Now, because of his trials and his perseverance through those trials as he experienced them in the second stage, he has learned humility and repentance, and the other virtues, which allow him to act freely in obedience to the commands of the Lord. He now experiences the sweetness of life in union with God, and has aligned his human will with the great will of God.

Personally, I have a vivid experience and memory of the first stage, inclusive of my baptism and lasting for about three years or so following that. Currently, I am in the midst of the second stage. And I have hope for the arrival of the third stage someday in my future. Actually, I am very grateful to Elder Sophrony for having articulated these stages, thereby helping me to understand the process, so as not to lose heart during the current time of struggle and of testing.

Baptism is an outpouring of abundant grace. I remember a tangible and overwhelming experience of the Holy Spirit during my Chrismation. Following this, my prayer life was vibrantly alive, I felt God very close to me, and out of my daily prayers I seemed to be given spiritual insights about many mysteries, and many subtle aspects of spirituality, which I wrote about in poems and in verse. For several years I was a prolific writer, sometimes writing two or three poems in a day, and it felt as if they were just given to me, that I was merely taking dictation, hardly making any revisions. I could write a fairly complex poem in ten or fifteen minutes without any changes to it.  And through all of these early years I was certain that the Holy Spirit walked beside me, or lived through me, it was just a simple but tangible experience I had, which amounted to a certainty of His presence within me. During this time God did actually sometimes still abandon me for short periods of time, perhaps a day or several days, but even as this occurred I still had a strong impulse to pray and seek Him, that He still empowered me by His grace to seek Him with determination and zeal. So that even though I experienced abandonment during this first stage, it was of a different character and degree than I do now, in the midst of the second stage; I look back on those times as ‘mini-abandonments’, or ‘practice abandonments’, whereas now they appear to me to be of much longer duration and of greater depth and difficulty. And now as I live through the second stage, I don’t have as ready and easy access to the zeal and inner desire to seek God that I previously had by His grace; so that now when I can’t find him, I oftentimes stop looking for Him.

In fact, sometimes I prefer many other things to Him. I get tired of trying to search for Him and of remaining steadfast on the spiritual path. Instead, I enjoy the pleasures of the moment, the visceral and physical pleasures of a hedonistic lifestyle. Part of me feels ashamed of this, and I think how far I’ve fallen.  I remember falling in the past, and how it stimulated me to get back up and try harder. That is a characteristic of the first stage I think. For me, a characteristic of the second stage is that when I have fallen, I lose interest and walk away.

I think, for many Christians who have no understanding or expectation of the arrival of this second stage they could be blindsided by it, and the subsequent confusion over their sudden lack of ‘grace’, could lead many to abandon their faith altogether, or if not that, it could at least lead them into feelings of despair or despondency over their sudden loss of God’s presence. Similarly, if they then have no expectation of finding their way to the third stage, with its renewed abundance of grace, they could lose hope altogether and also fall away from the spiritual life entirely; erroneously thinking there is ‘nothing’ to it, that life with God is a mirage, and possibly even doubting their initial experiences of God’s presence which they had felt during the period of their first stage.

Knowledge of Elder Sophrony’s three stages of the spiritual life can assist us in maintaining perspective during the inevitable dry spells in our spiritual life, and can help us persevere through these challenges and trials as we journey into deeper relationship with God. Likewise, an understanding of these stages can provide the foundation we need for counseling other believers when they encounter the difficulties inherent in the second stage, and for offering encouragement to them that there is a third stage on their horizon.

~FS

 

 

May Grace Settle Me

Please Lord, in your loving-kindness, show me my wickedness. For even in my love, I perceive my hatred towards You. All of the wise, who have come before me, have humbled themselves before you; so why should I consider myself better than they? No, I am not humble; I hide my faults, and justify myself before You, and before men.

Please Lord, in your mercy, show me my sin and let me see my transgressions against You, so that I can understand Your justice, and know the truth of my afflictions; so that I may forestall my descent, and halt my flight away from Your presence.

In my self-satisfaction, I have devised distractions to buttress my self-image. In my folly, I have grown complacent because of entertainments, which persuade me of my virtue. I prefer any lie, that will assure me of my own righteousness, against Your truth which may reveal my corruption.

The foolish hate their Maker and go their own way. They deny His existence in their hearts and make themselves orphans. And when the day of affliction comes upon them, who can they turn to but to themselves, or to those as foolish as they are? And what help will be found in this foolishness?

Please Lord, rescue me from my foolishness and save me from myself. I am at ease every day, content and proud, but beneath this veneer I am in turmoil, there is no soundness in my soul. There is no peace in my being. I wear wit, irony, cleverness and vanity like garments to hide my inner poverty of spirit. I am like a beggar in stolen clothing.

Lord, I plead for your absolute forgiveness; help me to turn back to You. Liberate me from the chains of my smug morality, and show me Your face, that I may see my own face more clearly. Give me a true heart of tears that can wash my innermost being clean. May Your grace settle me.

I am like a wild dog, snarling and vicious, when confronted by pain. But I desire to be docile and pliable to Your will—transcending my intractable pride, so common and ugly, so human and common—to be obedient to what is greater than I; ever-ready to love others in the same manner that You have loved me.

~FS