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Sunday of St John Climacus

The past few weeks I have been reading The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John Climacus (“ladder” in Greek). In the Orthodox Church, each Sunday of Great Lent is designated for veneration of a particular saint or (last Sunday) the Precious Cross. Today’s saint is John of the Ladder, so I was right on that page. One morning last week I was reading Step 22, On Vainglory, and the following passage loomed large, so I copied it into my journal. The next day, on ancientfaithradio.com in a program on the saints we remember during Lent, the discussion was on John of the Ladder. Out of the whole book, nearly 300 pages, the passage she chose to offer as a selection was this same paragraph. So it must be potent.

Like the sun which shines on all alike, vainglory beams on every occupation. What I mean is this: I fast, and turn vainglorious, I stop fasting so that I will draw no attention to myself, and I become vainglorious over my prudence. I dress well or badly, and am vainglorious in either case. I talk or hold my peace, and each time I am defeated. No matter how I shed this prickly thing, a spike remains to stand up against me.

This is only discouraging when I am preoccupied with my own sinfulness or self-righteousness in the image of some spiritually appealing or “correct” rules or precepts. It definitely reminds me that I am tossed about–hopelessly defeated without Christ–not some interpretation of His “teachings”, but His PERSON. So that any righteousness that I ever “attain” will not belong to me, but to Him, so it’s back to boasting only of my weakness through which He reveals Himself to me. It is ONLY CHRIST that helps us “do better”, so then, it is not to rack up points, but only to magnify Him (“for His sake”, “according to His will”).

I can’t resist including a few more passages which I copied. As always, it seems the truth is revealed in the paradox, the irony, the seeming contradictions.

When those who praise us, or, rather, those who lead us astray, begin to exalt us, we should briefly remember the multitude of our sins and in this way we will discover that we do not deserve whatever is said or done in our honor.

I think this is pretty interesting in the light of conventional wisdom–“stand up for yourself”, “don’t let anyone put you down,” “pamper yourself, you deserve it,” fighting for recognition, position, measuring ourselves by achievements, rank, etc. Surely it is the great and essential truth of Christianity that the only real glory is in losing our life (“the old man”, the idea of self we have fabricated according to our own will and imagination) for His sake, whereby we are transformed into His image and likeness. Because in the Cross His glory is revealed. In His death he defeated death.

The following are from Step 23, On Pride. John puts Pride and Vainglory next to each other because they are similar. Vainglory is the beginning, where Pride is the extremity.

…it is sheer lunacy to imagine that one has deserved the gifts of GOD.

Pride is utter poverty of soul disguised as riches, imaginery light where in fact there is darkness.

A proud man needs no demons. He has turned into one, an enemy to himself.

The strongest opposition to us [pride and vainglory] comes from the contrition of heart that grows out of obedience.

In a monastery, obedience is to the abbott or abbess and to the others with whom one lives, not because they are “right” or we agree with them or like them, but because we trust that GOD is using them for our salvation.
Sometimes it seems hard to discern “in the world” in what sense I am to be “obedient”–to whom, in what context, and perhaps more so without the more obvious structure of living in a family. I can’t give an answer. But I think the key is in I Thessalonians 5:16-18:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

From overflowing hearts: Lenten meditation

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

6: The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.
7: Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
8: And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.
9: As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures for ever.”
10: He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness.
11: You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God;
12: for the rendering of this service not only supplies the wants of the saints but also overflows in many thanksgivings to God.
13: Under the test of this service, you will glorify God by your obedience in acknowledging the gospel of Christ, and by the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others;
14: while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God in you.
15: Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!

The Word of the Cross

For the last few weeks I have been reviewing my journal from Great Lent and Paschaltide 2002. The following are some excerpts from a short treatise by Archimandrite Vaselios, Monastic Life as True Marriage.

Reject no one, forgive everyone, find a place for them in your heart. Pray for them with all your might, regardless of whether they hurt you. Be unable to inflict hurt, incapable of any such thing. Follow the Lord to Golgatha. (Isaiah 53:3: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not.”) Be wounded and know how to bear the pain. The Cross must be familiar and acceptable to you as a place to be and a mode of existence.

Then the LORD will come at some time, without fail, as He knows best. He will come and find you. He will speak to you. He will enter into you like light, repose, paradise. You will find yourself inside the icon of the Resurrection. of the Descent into Hell. This icon will be an expression of your life. Christ will be constantly leading you by the hand, bringing you to light, to freedom, to an unending journey which is himself.

How everything functions as a whole!
How nothing is irrelevant, nothing is wasted!
How the blessings go deeper than we hoped!
How the afflictions, the pains and the perplexities till the field of our souls like a deep-cutting ploughshare!
How totally and utterly the strange and heaven-sent rest differs in nature from the rest and satisfaction afforded by any earthly and temporary success!
How it teaches us humility, how it schools us in love, how it reconciles us with others!
It strengthens us, it invigorates us, and at the same time it makes us weaker, without any prickles or sharp corners which could wound others.

Patience

Continuing with transcriptions from The Lenten Spring by Father Thomas Hopko, SVS Press.

[from the Parable of the Sower, Luke 8]:
“And some (of the seed) fell on good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold”…they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”

To produce these holy fruits is not any easy task…does not just happen…is neither magical nor mechanical..is a long, hard labor…requires much work…most of all takes patience.

“By your endurance you will gain your lives.” (Luke 21:19)

Patience: to endure…watch…wait, not to hurry and rush…to suffer with and suffer through, in quiet expectation of the hope for result
[union with GOD].

“Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

Chastity

More from my notes (transcriptions) from The Lenten Spring by Father Thomas Hopko (SVS Press).

Chastity in the original language..a combination of the word for wholeness and integrity, and the word for wisdom and understanding. It is not something physical or biological..negative..the indication of “something not happening.” It is the positive quality of “having it all together” and “keeping it intact”… a spiritual condition…healthy integration and soundness of body, heart, mind, and spirit…a fundamental..necessity for authentic life.

Almsgiving

This is from my notes on reading from The Lenten Spring by Father Thomas Hopko (SVS Press).

“You gave me food,” “you gave me drink,” “you clothed me” and so on does not indicate one incident, but a constant attitude towards everyone.
The good of one’s neighbor is the only absolute law. The expression of love is the rule in every instance.

St John Chrysostum:
“Since we are all partakers of the same [human] nature, GOD commands and expects our affections toward one another.”

St Anthony the Great:
“Our life is with our neighbor…If we gain our brother, we have gained GOD, but if we scandalize our brother, we have sinned against Christ.”

St Silouan:
“Our brother is our life.”

Exile: definition

an irrevocable renunciation of everything in one’s familiar surroundings that hinders one from attaining the ideal of holiness,
a disciplined heart,
unheralded wisdom,
an unpublicized understanding,
a hidden life,
masked ideals,
unseen meditation,
the striving to be humble,
a wish for poverty,
the longing for what is divine,
an outpouring of love,
a denial of vainglory,
a depth of silence,
separation from everything, in order that one may hold on totally to GOD,
a chosen route of great grief…

from The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St John Climacus, Step 3 Exile.

Pillar of Fire

I was just reading Tia’s blog in which she mentioned Jacques Maritain. This recalled to me a passage from a book I read last year, Pillar of Fire by Karl Stern. Stern was a high profile Jewish German scientist who eventually ended up in the USA and converted to Christianity (Roman Catholic). This passage is a recollection of a meeting he had with Maritain. It made my heart beat fast. Of course, I copied it word for word into my journal.

“[Maritain] implored me not to allow the precious fruit of my spiritual experience to be corroded by psychological self-analysis, to believe in the genuineness of these insights which occur quite on a plane apart from that of primitive motivations. He spoke of the bleeding wounds on the visible body of the Church; of the divinity of Christ as a stumbling block for the Jews. He spoke in a peculiarly sketchy way, in hints rather than statements. Yet there was an impression of substance and clarity about everything he said. He held his hands compact and made movements with his fingers as if he were kneading materials into thoughts. His head was attentively bent, his eyes had a remote gaze; although it was warm in the room he wore loosely around his shoulder a muffler which had no function as a piece of clothing.

“Since I spoke almost in a whisper he had moved up closely and spoke also in a whisper. He asked me the most personal questions about my spiritual life but there was not for a moment the feeling of obtrusiveness or indiscretion. I had from the first moment the deep impression of a strange and pleasant form of personal directness which was the result of a great charity and humility. As we sat in the somber salon in the midst of velvet draperies and whispered about the shekinah and the divinity of Christ, I became aware of the uniqueness of the situation. We were stripped of accidentals of national and social origin, and circumstances found strange neighbors huddling. In moments of great intensity historical time ceases. I could just as well have been inside the catacombs, a helpless catachumen whispering to an apostle.”

There are some other amazing passages in this book. Rather than copy them out (again), I should perhaps be satisfied to say, please read this book! Pub. information: Doubleday & Company, Garden City, 1959.
I found it at the public library.

COPYWORK

A few months ago Charlotte (my link to literacy) lent me a little book, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie. I was at first attracted to it because of the bright red shoes on the cover, and the title, my being a seamstress, neither of which has much to do with why I am writing this. This is a peculiar, sometimes hilarious, and highly ironic tale of reeducation in Mao’s China. Two young men, exiled from their home to a remote farming village under hard labor, have discovered in the possession of another boy, a suitcase, which is full, they are sure, of smuggled western novels. Through their wits, determination, and sweat, they manage to get hold of a copy of a Balzac novel, thereby opening the door to a forbidden world of “ desire, passion, impulsive action, and love”. Here, in the words of the story’s narrator is the fateful moment.

“I did not rise from my bed until I had turned the last page…Then I was seized by an idea: I would copy out my favorite passages from Ursule Mirouet, word for word. It was the first time in my life that I had felt any desire to copy sentences from a book. I ransacked the room for paper, but all I could find was a few sheets of notepaper intended for letters to our parents.

“I decided I would write directly onto the inside of my sheepskin coat. The short coat, a gift from the villagers when I arrived, was made out of skins with wool of varying lengths and textures on the outside and bare hide on the inside. It was hard to find suitable passages in the book, as the limited space afforded by my coat was further reduced by areas where the leather was too cracked to be of use. I copied out the chapter where Ursule somnambulates. I longed to be like her; to be able, while I lay asleep on my bed, to see what my mother was doing in our apartment five hundred kilometres away…Better still, like Ursule, I would visit, in my dreams, places I had never set eyes on before…

“Writing on the skin of an old mountain sheep was not easy: the surface was rough and creased and, in order to squeeze as much text as possible into the available space, I had to use a minute script, which required all the concentration I could muster. By the time I had covered the entire inside of the jacket, including the sleeves, my fingers were aching so badly it felt as if the bones sere broken. At last I dozed off.”

This was my favorite passage from this book, and I copied it into my journal word for word. I recognized myself in his impulse–in this necessity of somehow entering concretely, personally, into the words, the descriptions, the longings, of etching the very experiences into his cells, into his body’s memory, blazing a trail from this seeing of his eyes, from the recognition of his mind, down through his hand so he could feel them, onto a surface where he could see them, take hold of them, wrap them about him.

I know this for I am a copier–a late-into-the-night writer. Due to various chosen and unchosen circumstances, I have been divested of most of my possessions including my libraries, more than once. Perhaps because of this, I have gradually grown a different sense of what made something “mine”, and have mostly lost my urge for acquisition, so that whether or not I have a particular book–even a favorite book–on my shelf is usually of little consequence to me. On the other hand, having the words in my body–laid up in my cells–has become my necessity. A byproduct of this is the growing number of journals stacked in shelves and on tables. I seek out books to borrow, and as I read, I copy. If the writing is terse and clean, this can be difficult because there is no excerpting passages that are well honed. In my journals I indicate the beginning page of each new transcription with a paper tab with title and author, so I can return to it, as I would to the book itself. When I reread the journals, I often make transcriptions from the transcriptions, or may be encouraged to retrieve the book, and make a new set of transcriptions, which may or may not be similar to the previous one. The copied parts are sprinkled with personal comments and copied short passages from several books which I do own and read in small portions on an ongoing basis. All of this quite clearly recalls to me the particular context of my life in which it was written.
The copyings are various, but do not, at least to me (and no one else sees them) seem at all random. I am amazed, when I return to them, how much they are of a piece, reminding me where I have been and am going, and to whom I belong. The copying is not an intellectual exercise. Nor is it for the sake of storing information. I believe it is rather a kind of trail blazing, a way of praying, of listening, the stretching out of my hands to what is beyond the limitations of my own understanding. In it I experience a growing and insatiable longing for paradise–for participation in the very life of God.

Psalm 84: 1-2, 5-7
“How lovely is thy dwelling place, O LORD of Hosts!
My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God….

Blessed are the men whose strength is in Thee,
in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca [a desolate place],
they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength:
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.”

Psalm 27:4
“One thing have I asked of the LORD,
and that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in His temple.”

I have a funny thought, in this simple act is an unseen world—like the place of the mandorla in the icon. This has been given to me–I could not have contrived it, invented it, or really even intended it. I just find myself here, and am grateful for this way of listening, of tasting and seeing, of “inquiring in his temple” and of offering thanks. I find in the act of writing one of my greatest pleasures, but more than that, a deep satisfaction: just forming the letters, transforming a blank page into something meaningful and perhaps beautiful–not so much as an artist or a calligrapher, although that is part of it, but more as a lover.

I am reminded of the words of the disciples reflecting on their meeting with Jesus on the road to Emmaus:
”Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?” (Luke 24:32).

What makes our hearts burn must also be shaping us, marking our path, taking us where we are going. In the story, the boys hearts longed for the home from which they were exiled, and burned for a mysterious world beyond the confines of their drudgery and captivity–for them the unknown, the unpredictable, the forbidden which, with an ironic twist, came about.

I hope that in the end I will simply be able to say with Saint Paul:
“Henceforth let no man trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” (Gal 6:17).

A short note: I am very interested in the issue of writing as an integral and integrating aspect of education. I have two homeschooling friends who consider copying a crucial aspect of their curriculum for multiple reasons. Another who has taught only minimal formation of letters and numbers, emphasizing rather comuputer skills.

In the next few days I may make a list of some of the books I’ve copied from.

Kitty Kaviar

A few months ago, during a long weekend visit with my friend Charlotte, we were out on a lark in the riverfront shopping area in her community. I consider myself no shopper, but in some mysterious way Charlotteis usually able to loosen my tether, so I came home with a new book, paintbrushes, and sketching journals. But there was only thing I can say that she really made me do. She took me into her favorite boutique, “Bone Appetit”. When it comes to animal companions, she is of undivided mind, no questions asked. How could I shirk my responsibility to my cats left at home alone, with her standing there? Even she herself has been know to say, “Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.” I walked out of the boutique (Bone Appetit) with a rather pricy tin of Kitty Kaviar. I didn’t tell Charlotte, but I have never given my cats treats. They are little ascetic beings–I thought–not desiring, and certainly not needing any such rich indulgence. And it was the case, that when they first were presented with this odd stuff in their bowls, they withdrew suspiciously. Somewhat later they kind of sidled up to it and sniffed at it. The second time it was offered, they were not excited, though mildly interested…..Time passes….Every day, as soon as I walk in the house, my big boy, Thresh, is standing by his bowl looking up at me, and whimpering his desire–he who or otherwise rarely makes a squeak. I thought that if I were to keep this up, I would have to find a more economically viable mode. I noticed a little caption on the package, “bonito”. I used to make a soup stock with bonito flakes (for medicinal purposes, of course) back in my macrobiotic phase. So I knew I could get a generic version at an Oriental market–a nice big package. My hunch was a good one. Now I transfer the contents to the Kitty Kaviar tin, to keep in the spirit of the thing, although my cats have never been interested in brands, per se. And by the way, these delicate fish flakes really do make a delictable Asian style soup along with Kombu (a type of kelp), scallions, maybe a little Shitake mushroom, Shoyu, and fresh grated ginger root, all served over buckwheat soba noodles. All of these are available at a good natural foods market. Thresh and Winnow and I are in accord on this.
They must also be rather pleased, as I am, with the Charlotte connection, as it is always to our great benefit, providing our home a less constrained and more amiable ambiance, full of happiness and many amenities of friendship. Very healthful for us all. Look for more on this in future posts.