Tag Archives: humanity

Born into everyone’s business.

Encounters with strangers often leave me feeling deeply connected at the fundamental level of our common humanity. People you don’t know, who may be needy themselves, or may help you in an emergency, or with whom you share a crisis, are often easier to feel close to than your dearest friend or your cousin you’ve loved since you were children. That is because you have nothing but your humanity to connect with. No offenses given or received have been stuffed into your baggage regarding that person.

Like the Indian woman I once sat next to, so very close to, on a plane from Mumbai to Frankfurt. She actually had been seated behind me when we first boarded, but before we were told to fasten our safety belts the man next to me, I guessed he was her son, traded places with her, perhaps so she could sit by a woman. I don’t know, but she and I liked each other, we could tell by our smiles, though we said not a word to each other during eight hours, not knowing the words.

Today in the Orthodox Church we enter Great Lent with the Vespers of Forgiveness, when we also connect with many people we hardly know, on the ground of our fallen humanity. We admit with a bow and a kiss that we have sinned against them, whether we’ve ever spoken to them or have even seen them before. We exchange the words, “Please forgive me!” with each person in the service in turn, and each of us responds, “God forgives!”

Why? Because, as Elder Sophrony said, “Every sin, manifest or secret, committed by each one of us, affects the rest of the universe.”

I’m sure many of us find it difficult to comprehend, but going through this exercise every year will help us learn the truth in our hearts. Father Stephen Freeman helps, too, in passages like this:

The universe as an event of communion, a reality in which we literally participate, is quite foreign to the modern mind. The fiction of our radical individualism is an invention designed to promote the most irresponsible account of human freedom possible. It tells us that our lives “are our own,” and that we can act without consequences for anyone other than ourselves. “It is none of your business!” is the heart-cry of modernity. But this is simply not true.

We are born into everyone’s business and everyone’s business sets the stage and the very parameters of our existence. The language we speak, the thoughts we think, everything in our lives comes to us already burdened with the history and experience of the world around us. The saints treat this reality in the strongest possible sense. “My brother is my life,” St. Silouan says. By this, he does not mean simply that he cares strongly about his brother. He means it in its most literal sense. Not only is my own life not my own, but the life of the other is, in fact, my true life, or my true life certainly has no existence or reality apart from the life of the other.

Read the rest of the article: Why We Forgive

And if you are keeping Lent, I pray that through your efforts and God’s grace you and we all will grow in understanding of this life that we share. God bless you!

Seoul, Korea

*pictures found online

Ivan was not ready.

This month our women’s book club at church read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and Sunday afternoon we met at my house to discuss it. That day on the liturgical calendar happened to be the Sunday of the Last Judgment, with the Gospel reading from Matthew 25.

In that passage, before we come to the day’s reading, Christ has been speaking privately to His disciples about the end times, and telling parables. One is about virgins getting enough oil for their lamps, and the other about servants making good use of the gifts they were given. Both parables end with someone arriving and some people not being prepared.

Ivan Ilyich was most certainly not ready for the arrival of his death. He and his friends were like many people in that they avoided thinking about that inevitability. The story opens with the fact of it, and his funeral, which doesn’t affect his friends very much, because thank goodness, it wasn’t their death, so they can go on as they were before. Then the author takes us back to see Ivan’s life over the years, and close to the end when he could no longer avoid suffering, and had to face a reality that didn’t fit into his life’s theme of doing what was pleasant.

The Gospel for the day is sobering, and our pastor reminded us of what his late father, also our priest, used to say, that the task of the preacher is always to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This passage continues in the thread of being about Someone’s return. Christ, the Son of Man, begins to talk to His friends more directly, if metaphorically:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” And by what criteria exactly does He sort them? If you haven’t read that account recently you might want to look at it; the whole process is laid out with much detail in Matthew 25. Our preacher said it is like getting the answers before the final exam.

I was teaching my usual church school class afterward, and read in preparation a sermon by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom that I liked very well; I shared it with the students, too. A quote:

“We are told that when the Day of Judgment comes, those who will stand before God – and those are all of us – will not be asked about their creed, about their theological knowledge, about their theoretical convictions. They will be asked direct and concrete questions, that can be summed up in one: have you been human, or not?”

Steve Robinson wrote similarly: “The separation is this: Who was paying attention to life itself, our Life in a constant icon before us, and fulfilling the Image in which we are created? Who is, in love and sometimes even in ignorance of the Name of the Image, paying attention to what is ultimately our Salvation now, and ever, and unto the ages, even though we do not know it.”

It is the disruption of Ivan Ilyich’s pleasant life, the pain of his illness, and the growing realization that he is dying, that make him pay attention, and even pray. His prayer is along the lines of, “What did I do to deserve this?” but nevertheless: “Then he was still, ceased weeping, held his breath, and was all attention; he listened, as it were, not to a voice uttering sounds, but to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts that rose up within him.” 

He begins to consider that perhaps “he had spent his life not as he ought….” Eventually, Ivan “saw distinctly that it was all not the right thing; it was a horrible, vast deception that concealed both life and death.”

This idea of the right thing ties in to what we heard in the homily at church, that God’s judgment is not of the sort we exercise and endure by the same name in the world. His judgment is essentially what happens when the One Who understands everything and is perfect Love sets things right. It would appear that as soon as Ivan prayed the feeblest prayer, his Father began this process.

The end, when it came for Ivan, leads us to believe that he passed from death to life. It did not come without agonizing struggles. He had missed life while appearing to be alive, all the while not preparing for death, which turns out to be the beginning of his true life.

Until they were separated, the sheep and goats had been in the flock together, being cared for by the Shepherd. Steve Robinson points out that sheep and goats alike were clueless about how their fate had been decided; it wasn’t fear of judgment that made the sheep love their fellows and act like sheep — or leaving the metaphor, as the humans God created them to be. Neither did they see Christ in the needy person whom they clothed or fed or took into their homes, but they loved that person anyway.

Metropolitan Anthony ends his sermon with this exhortation: “One day we will stand before Him. He will meet us with His infinite love, but looking at Him we will see that He has been our victim throughout life in the person of every one whom He loved and whom we have neglected, humiliated, rejected, allowed or caused to suffer. And how terrible it will be at that moment to look at Him and know that there is no anger, no hatred in Him, but deep, deep pain. Let us think of that, and remember… if you want to be divine, first be truly human.”

They lack nerves, and the tiny interior.

In this poem I recently encountered, the poet doesn’t say whether he himself believes in Platonic forms, only that “they” claim to know that this principle orders the minds of angels, and what the effects of its working is. It’s my understanding that Plato’s idea of forms is not in accord with Christian theology; one writer on the subject claims that “Maximus the Confessor remains to this day the single most important figure in Orthodox cosmological thought,” and that “his doctrine of the logoi of things can in no way be reduced to a static world of Platonic forms.” There is no Huge Principle, but there is Almighty God, the great “I am.”

Another thing I wonder about is the location of the “tiny interior” mentioned; I should think it is more in the heart than the brain, this place where the Maker shares His secrets. Both of my wonderings are based on my slight understanding of philosophy and theology; what I do feel more certain of is that angels are basically very different from humans. Christ took on human nature, because it was we humans who needed His solidarity with us, and His quickening of our dead spirits. But having been created “a little lower than the angels,” we were “crowned with honor and glory.”

Whatever all of the attributes of angel nature may be, it is given to us humans to enjoy the senses and their joys, which in the following poem by C.S. Lewis are seen as guards against the richer angel-type experiences that we could not in our earthiness bear. I see these sensory experiences as much more than that, and where the poet evokes the way they can fill our hearts to overflowing, such as when we “drink the whole summer down into the breast,” isn’t he describing more than a purely sensual experience? Quite possibly a thankful, prayerful heart can know mystical secrets of the trees and stones, as their secrets would be not other than whatever the Creator in kindness might reveal of Himself in and through them – and beyond.

ON BEING HUMAN

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence
Behold the Forms of nature. They discern
Unerringly the Archtypes, all the verities
Which mortals lack or indirectly learn.
Transparent in primordial truth, unvarying,
Pure Earthness and right Stonehood from their clear,
High eminence are seen; unveiled, the seminal
Huge Principles appear.

The Tree-ness of the tree they know — the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth’s salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it; all the holiness
Enacted by leaves’ fall and rising sap;

But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
— An angel has no skin.

They see the Form of Air; but mortals breathing it
Drink the whole summer down into the breast.
The lavish pinks, the field new-mown, the ravishing
Sea-smells, the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest.
The tremor on the rippled pool of memory
That from each smell in widening circles goes,
The pleasure and the pang — can angels measure it?
An angel has no nose.

The nourishing of life, and how it flourishes
On death, and why, they utterly know; but not
The hill-born, earthy spring, the dark cold bilberries.
The ripe peach from the southern wall still hot
Full-bellied tankards foamy-topped, the delicate
Half-lyric lamb, a new loaf’s billowy curves,
Nor porridge, nor the tingling taste of oranges.
— An angel has no nerves.

Far richer they! I know the senses’ witchery
Guards us like air, from heavens too big to see;
Imminent death to man that barb’d sublimity
And dazzling edge of beauty unsheathed would be.
Yet here, within this tiny, charmed interior,
This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares
With living men some secrets in a privacy
Forever ours, not theirs.

-C.S. Lewis

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to Fr. Mark Kowalewski for introducing me to this poem.
(said Mr Homegrown)

Can consumers be saved?

In trying to understand ourselves, people have worked out different ways to analyze aspects of the human person. Are we spirit-soul-body or mind-emotions? Is it body-and-intellect, or heart vs. head? It’s too bad we have to be always chopped up into warring interests. God intended for us to be unified creatures, as the Holy Trinity is a Unity, but only by God’s grace can we begin to know some of that intended wholeness.

What is the heart? Surely it’s not just the emotions, as many moderns seem to think. The Orthodox Church understands the heart very differently and more deeply than this. The Greek word nous, the fathers tell us, is not easily translated into English. But some current writers have been able to get through my dullness and give a little more clarity.

One of these is Fr. Stephen Freeman, and his recent blog post “Shopping for God” contains a lot of nourishment that will take me some time to soak up thoroughly. My title is a question posed at the end of his article written on Black Friday Eve.

I haven’t finished my Christmas shopping, but even when I come to the end of that I know there will be other anxiety-producing prompts to and from my false self, so I appreciate Fr. Stephen’s reminder of my inheritance in Christ, and His Kingdom within.

Here are some excerpts:

Shoppers desire beauty, acceptance, self-confidence, power, intelligence, pleasure, excitement, a host of intangible needs. They are not natural needs, but the passions of the spiritually disordered. Our unnatural existence is centered in the false self — the sense of identity generated within our memory, thoughts and emotions. It is burdened with uncertainty. Comparing, judging, measuring, revising are constant activities of the mind in its role of the false self.
 ………

Christ at the well

The human life was created to be centered in the heart, the spiritual seat of our existence. The heart is not subject to the passions, not driven by desire and necessity. It is not the same thing as the mind. It does not compare or judge, measure or spin tales of its own existence. It simply is. It is in the heart that we know God (truly know). Its aesthetic is true beauty, found within the most ordinary of objects as well as in the greatest efforts of man. The heart is content.