Sunday, 22 November 2009

Sin is Personal

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.

A.I. Solzhenitsyn

This little quotation says so much to me.   Some people say that they think of me as being good, but I know myself to be a sinner.  My heart contains so much to be sorry for, as well as so much to be grateful for.

For example, only one of many, I have a terrible temper, especially when I blame myself for something.  I am liable to go into a complete ranting rage at a moment's notice.  There appears to be nothing that I can do about it.  I also have difficulties with other passions.  Most of these are habits, and I would dearly like to have them behind me.

In fact when I think about it, I have all the passions: Pride, Anger, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Avarice, Sloth; but also in some strange way hints of all the virtues: Humility, Patience, Chastity, Contentedness, Temperance, Liberality, and Diligence.  This is what Aleksandr is saying in the quote above.  Defeating sin is about moving our own personal dividing lines.

And defeating sin is an internal battle: the devil is pretty simplistic in his approach, "if he did it yesterday, lets see if we can fool him into doing it again today" is his favourite ploy.  Not being a creator, he doesn't do well in the innovation stakes.  For true innovation in sinning you want a human, but once invented the devil is quite happy to nudge you into it time after time after time...

It's easy to say "avoid the opportunities for sin", but in practise this is impossible.  Yes, we can avoid pubs to avoid drink, but then we cut ourselves off from companionship with people for whom we may be called to help.  I could give up woodwork, so that I didn't get angry when I cut the wood wrong - but then I couldn't make the things that people love.  We could give up marriage, so we couldn't hurt the ones we love.

In fact we can't avoid sin, it is already in our hearts.  All we can do is turn back every time to God and repent - and then ask for Grace to do better.  Only God can take the stain of sin from our hearts, and He will only do it if he is asked.

This is what is meant by "standing in the struggle".

St Basil the Great wrote this:

Blessed, therefore, is he who did not continue in the way of sinners but passed quickly by better reasoning to a pious way of life.  For there are two ways opposed to each other, the one wide and broad, the other narrow and close ...  Now,  the smooth and downward way has a deceptive guide, a wicked demon, who drags his followers through pleasure to destruction, but the rough and steep way has a good angel, who leads his followers through the toils of virtue to a blessed end.

Notice the words 'continue' and 'quickly' in the first sentence, and the phrase 'toils of virtue' in the last. And this is a story about a monk from Kiev:

A brother asked Abba Sisoes, saying, "What shall I do, Abba, for I have fallen?"  The old man answered, "Get up again."  The brother says,"I got up and fell again."  The old man continued, "Get up again and again."  The brother asked, "'till when?"  The old man answered, "Until you have been seized either by virtue or by sin."

It's clear then, the Fathers tell us that we have to find a way to the rough and steep path that leads to the blessed end. But that we will step off that path, and when we do we must immediately step back on again, albeit a little further from our goal. Confess the sin, turn to God, immediately begin to struggle upwards again.

What, after all, was the Problem in The Garden of Eden?  Was it the eating of the forbidden fruit?  Or was it, perhaps, the lie, the attempt to hide the broken commandment, the fear of being found out?  Yes, the breaking of the command was the sin, but the stain on their hearts, on our hearts still today, is the fear of being found out.  This is why we must immediately confess and ask for forgiveness - the longer we wait the worse the stain, the worse the rot.

A quote from St. Silouan of Athos:

The heart-stirrings of a good man are good; those of a wicked person are wicked; but everyone must learn how to combat intrusive thoughts, and turn the bad into good. This is the mark of the soul that is well versed.

How does this come about, you will ask?

Here is the way of it: just as a man knows when he is cold or when he feels hot, so does the man who has experienced the Holy Spirit know when grace is in his soul, or when evil spirits approach.

The Lord gives the soul understanding to recognize His coming, and love Him and do His will. In the same way the soul recognizes thoughts which proceed from the enemy, not by their outward form but by their effect on her [the soul].

This is knowledge born of experience;  and the man with no experience is easily duped by the enemy.

The Lord should have the last word here (Luke 6:45):

The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

Friday, 13 November 2009

On Sin

The traditional understanding of sin in this country (England) derives mostly from the Roman concepts of legal debt and erroneous concept of the Latin Church that Adam's fall changed us into creatures somehow different from those that God created in Eden.

The idea that sin is in some way held in a kind of 'account', and then meritorious works somehow cancel these debts, is part of the Latin heritage, and it has permeated the language of the Anglican church too. I find this unhelpful as a concept, the thought of having to pay off my account is enough to send me into deep deep depression. Because, like St Paul, I am a great sinner, and like him I persecuted and pilloried the faithful for many years. God be praised that also like him I have seen the light, albeit not quite as brightly – yet.

These are not, however, the concepts of the early Church Fathers who saw sin as a turning away from, or rejection, of God AND his offer of Eternal Life in Him. For the Fathers Adam's fall was as if the Perfection of Adam was obscured by sin, under that shroud the perfection is still in existence – we are still made “in His image” - only God can see it, but it is still there. Christ shows us by his submission, even to revilement and death, the way back to God and to perfection. This is the triumph of the Cross, that by submission to God we can all be made perfect, but the way leads though agony. This is however a cup that you can pick up, or one you can let go by.

All the Fathers agree that God has given his creatures complete freedom to choose, and we retain that freedom forever. It is not the belief in God that brings salvation - the devil and the fallen angels know full well the truth, but have rejected it – it is the acceptance of God's will that enables Him to bring salvation.

This is why it is so important to understand that Jesus was both fully Man and fully God. In his Humanity he shows us what can be achieved if we ask. He did conquer all the temptations of a human life, and then, just for us, submitted to the agony of death and resurrection. He didn't need to go though the agony for himself, he didn't go to 'pay off' our account of sins. No, he went through the agony to show us what God could achieve if we ask him, and to show us that the process would bring pain before it brought life. The Fathers also taught that while in the tomb he showed this to all the dead, so opening the way to life, even to them. On Great Pascha (Passover, Easter) the Orthodox sing the hymn (it's much better in Greek):

Christ is risen from the dead,

Trampling down death by death,

And to those in the tombs he has given Life.

When you next go to St Bega's, Bassenthwaite, look at the ancient Crucifix over the pulpit, the Cross stands in the open tomb, the scull and bones are Adam's; but they are ours too.

So how do we handle our sin? The first thing to say is “turn back to God”, which is another way of saying “pray”. You have broken the relationship you had with Him, so do what you would do for any relationship that you have broken and want to mend – ask for forgiveness. But don't get hung up on the sin, it isn't an irretrievable situation – this is Christ's Good News: “life for sinners, follow me!” And don't get into self over-analysis, that way leads to depression - an opportunity for the devil - it is no way out, and it leads to death.

A wise man, probably a modern saint, Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov (the title means roughly Chief Abbot – a monk, he died in Essex) said: “You know, we pick and poke away, hunting for every little mistake or thought, and we make ourselves crazy, all for nothing. It becomes an obsession, and really makes a wall between us and God, leaving no room for grace to act. Yes, we must know our sins, and that we are sinful and deluded beings, but we must never lose sight of the fact that we come to God in prayer, not to be obsessed with our sins, but to find His mercy. Otherwise the devil takes everything away from us… joy, hope, peace, love… and leaves us nothing but this obsession with our mistakes. That is not repentance. That is neurosis…”

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

This is joy of our faith that we can, with utter confidence, say: “Lord have mercy.”

Love, Richard.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Prayer Unceasing

I submitted this article to The Binsey Beacon. It was published in the December 2009/January 2010 edition. It's a follow-up to my last blog entry (see below). I rather unashamedly have plagiarised some words from Fr James Coles's blog ScholĂ© (It's my favourite blog right now)

Prayer Unceasing.

In my last letter to The Binsey Beacon (Sept 2009), I wrote about unceasing prayer, as advocated by Saint Paul in 1 Thess 5:17. I thought it might be helpful to expand a bit on what I mean by 'unceasingly'.

I have been studying the writings of the Holy Fathers, the so called 'Patriarchs of the Church', holy men who lived in the first centuries after The Resurrection of Our Lord. Some of these were taught by the Apostles, but all were very close in time to people who heard Our Lord speak – the oral tradition was still very strong. So I count their testament very highly. The study of their writings is called 'Patristics' for obvious reasons.

The study of Patristics has occupied the Eastern Church, The Orthodox in particular, throughout the years since, and many of the more recent orthodox writers have followed the tradition of the Holy Fathers too. It's interesting to note that of all the manuscripts (velum, parchment, and papyrus) that we still have from ancient times, the fragments of the Gospels and Epistles are the most numerous, and then the writings of Fathers about them. You can tell the popularity of a manuscript by the number of copies that were made – and hence the likelihood that they will survive the vagaries of time. This may be a good topic for another letter.

To return to prayer unceasing. It is pretty impossible to do nothing but say prayers all the time. You have to wash and dress and cook and work, otherwise you will die. This story about Saint Anthony the Great (c251-356) is helpful.

Abba Anthony fell into discouragement and a great darkening of thoughts, he said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone - what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?” A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, “Do this and you will be saved.” At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.”

Even work is prayer if it is dedicated to God. Saint Gregory the Theologian (of Nazianzus) said, “remember God more often than you breathe.” Prayer is to be as natural to us as breathing, or thinking, or speaking. Somehow we need to get into the habit of prayer so that everything becomes a part of it. The point is briefly expressed in one of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers: “A monk who prays only when he stands up for prayer is not really praying at all.” (Anonymous) Saint Antiochus of the Monastery of St. Sabbas (7th C) , alludes to the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-7 when he says: “There is a proper time for everything except prayer: as for prayer, its proper time is always.”

So when we speak of unceasing prayer we are not saying that the words must be said unceasingly, but we are saying that the mind must be in the heart, and the heart and mind turned constantly towards God, no matter what we are doing. Again then, I suggest to you that repeating a simple prayer a goodly number of times just after you awaken, will set the mind in the heart and on God. At frequent intervals throughout the working day further short periods of concentrated focus on God are needed. And finally to go to sleep with the prayer echoing in the mind: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.

Remember, at this time of year especially, that He came to give you Life. What are you going to give Him for Christmas: attention, adoration, love?

His Peace be with you all this Christmas and throughout 2010. Richard.

Private Prayer

This is a reprint of a letter I wrote to The Binsey Beacon, my local church newspaper (Anglican).  It was published in the September 2009 edition.  Without it my next blog won't make much sense.

On Private Prayer

He is like a still pool, a perfect reflection - and yet it is the still pool that is the refection of the perfect Him.

Isn’t it amazing how much you can say in just a few words? True prayer isn’t about words, it’s about relationship. It’s about standing with God, at peace with Him as He is at peace with you. The hard part is silencing the noisy ego-self with it’s constant prattling on about the things we see and hear and feel. We need to put our mind in our heart, and not in our brain.

Perhaps you have sat quietly just holding the hand of someone you love deeply. To hold a newborn asleep in your arms. To stand on a mountain, silenced by the splendour, so grateful to have lived to feel that serenity. Standing in prayer is like that - no words, just love

If you know what I mean, then you’ll also know how fleeting these moments are, how infrequently we let ourselves love so deeply, how hard it is to achieve that degree of rapport. It can’t be done on demand, all you can do is to stand there, and wait, and hope.

Sometimes you will have to pour out all your worries and concerns, a great rush of words and emotions, before you can stand in silence - eventually, just to love. Sometimes you stand in silence just hoping for a single word, but it doesn’t come. Sometimes your senses will put you straight into the right mode, a smell, or a sound, or perhaps a loved-ones gentle touch, and there you are.

And even more frequently you can’t get anywhere at all, but the half-memory of the bliss makes you yearn for what you can’t quite recall.

This is where a prayer like The Jesus Prayer can help. A simple prayer, one that you can repeat easily meaning every word, concentrating on just the words, letting the ego exhaust itself, while you put your heart into the prayer. The important thing is the prayer, that is where all your focus should be. Don’t worry about all the things you want God to do, He knows. Don’t worry about all the sins you remember, He already forgave. Don’t worry about listening for His reply, you’ll hear Him when He needs you to.

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner

Say it now. “Lord” - yes, that’s the right attitude - submit. “Jesus Christ” - yes, the God who became like me to suffer as I do and die for me. “Son of God” - yes, the whole Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit. “Have mercy on me” - in the end that’s all I can ask, because I acknowledge that I am “a sinner”. To say the prayer is to assume the attitude of love, to put your mind into your heart, and do nothing but what you are made for - Love. God does all the rest. As Saint Paul says in 1 Thess 5:17:

Pray without ceasing.

Yes - forever...

Love, Richard.