Category: Grace


Great Friday: Christ Crucified

Today is hung upon a tree,

he who hung the land upon the waters. (x3)

Crowned with a circlet of thorns is he,

who is the king of angels.

Wrapped in the purple of mockery is he,

who wrapped the heavens in the clouds.

Buffeted upon the face is he,

who in the Jordan set Adam free.

Joined with nails [to the cross] is he,

who is the Bridegroom of the Church.

Pierced with a spear is he,

who is the Son of the Virgin.

We venerate your passion, O Christ; (x3)

show us also your glorious Resurrection!

~ Great Friday Matins, Fifteenth Antiphon

Tonight in the Orthodox Church, we observe the matins service for Great Friday by anticipation of the coming day. Kelly and Brendan and I had intended to go, but Kelly had to work and Brendan staged a successful rebellion against napping this afternoon, so I’ve had to content myself with this reflection on the most somber and beautiful part of the service. The priest chants this hymn slowly, with a loud voice, as he processes with the acolytes and others, holding a life-sized icon of Christ crucified, which he and the faithful all venerate once he has set it at the front of the nave. Everyone kneels in the candlelight as the procession passes and all is quiet except the thundering proclamation, “Today is hung upon a tree, he who hung the land upon the waters.”

Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom,” writes St. Paul to the Corinthians, “but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). He goes on to say, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). What does it mean to know nothing but “Jesus Christ and him crucified”? Continue reading

The Ladder of Humility: Step 12

The twelfth degree of humility is, when the monk’s inward humility appears outwardly in his comportment. And wherever he be, in the divine office, in the oratory, in the monastery, in the garden, on a journey, in the fields wherever he is sitting, walking or standing, he is to look down with bowed head conscious of his guilt, imagining himself ready to be called to give account at the dread judgement: repeating in his heart what the publican in the Gospel said with eyes downcast: “Lord, I am not worthy, sinner that I am, to lift up my eyes to heaven”; and with the prophet “I am bowed down and humbled on every side.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

Is there a way to separate humility from low self-esteem? On the one hand, the fathers are not a fan of self-esteem in the first place. Evagrios even refers to it as a demon. So perhaps not. And perhaps we are overly positive about the idea in our time in the first place. On the other hand, if low self-esteem means a defeatist mentality, the answer is definitely yes: they can be separated and are, in fact, distinct. Continue reading

The Ladder of Humility: Step 6

The sixth degree of humility is, if a monk be content with anything though never so vile and contemptible; and to think himself inadequate, and unworthy to succeed in whatever he is commanded to do; saying with the prophet: “I was brought to nothing and knew nothing. I am become like a brute beast before thee, yet I am always with thee.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

“Glory to God for all things!” These are the famous last words of St. John Chrysostom, whose memory, along with St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian, we Orthodox celebrate today. This “sixth degree of humility” of St. Benedict’s ladder has the same spirit behind it. It is a difficult saying and a difficult step to embrace, but like all steps along the way of life, once traveled it seems much easier in hindsight. Continue reading

The fourth degree of humility is, when anyone, in the practice of obedience, meets with hardships, contradictions, or affronts, and yet bears them all with a quiet conscience and with patience, and continues to persevere. The Scripture says: “He who perseveres to the end, the same shall be saved,” and again: “Let your heart be strengthened, and wait for our Lord.” And to show that the faithful servant ought to suffer every trial for God, the Scripture speaks in the person of those that suffer: “For thy sake we are killed all the day long: we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.”

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

At the fourth step of St. Benedict’s ladder of humility, he offers two correctives to common spiritual images. In the first case, he rightly puts Christ’s statement: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10) in the context of humility and self-denial (“in the practice of obedience”). In the second case, he references Psalm 43 (44 in most English Bibles), correcting the common, Sunday-school image of God’s people as a happy flock of sheep. Instead, he reminds us what sheep are for: “we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.Continue reading

The Art of Eternal Life

[Abba Isaac said:] “St. Antony … uttered this heavenly, inspired, saying on the end of prayer: ‘That prayer is not perfect in which the monk understands himself and the words which he is praying.'”

~ Conferences of Cassian, 9.31

In all our striving for the right method of spiritual progress, sayings like this one can be both comforting and conflicting. Continue reading

Love Embraces Everything

Where, then, can anyone go or where can he flee to escape from him who embraces everything?

~ 1 Clement 28.4

Today we Orthodox Christians commemorate St. Clement of Rome, who knew the Apostles, wrote a letter (1 Clement) on behalf of the Church in Rome to the Church in Corinth, and was martyred for his faith by being bound to an anchor and cast into the sea. The anchor, because ancient anchors often had a sort of cross shape at the top, was an ancient Christian symbol, thus those who persecuted him and other Christians out of xenophobia, envy, and rivalry unwittingly honored him in his death. His epistle to the Corinthians is a beautiful exhortation to peace and unity in the face of envy and rivalry. In the passage above, he reminds his readers of something no Christian would deny, but many (myself included) forget in practice: God “embraces everything.” Continue reading

A Mania of Love

Just as human affection, when it abounds, overpowers those who love and causes them to be beside themselves, so God’s love for men emptied God.

~ St. Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, 6.3

St. Nicholas Cabasilas lived in the middle ages, which is later than I usually go for sayings to reflect on. However, this one struck me as too profound not to share. I have written before on how our love for Christ can take on a romantic quality—that overpowering eros that compels us to leave everything to follow Jesus. But according to St. Nicholas, that is only half the story, and the beauty of the other half outshines the former as the light of the sun outshines the moon and the stars: God loved us in this way first. Continue reading

Spiritual Utopianism

[Abba Poemen] said: “If a man makes a new heaven and a new earth, he still cannot be safe from temptation.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.24A

The Roman Catholic saint Thomas More famously coined the term utopia in his book of the same name. It is actually a play on words: “topos” is Greek for “place,” whereas “ou” is Greek for “no” and “eu” is Greek for “good.” Thus one may understand it either way (“no place” or “good place”), though the likely intention is to say that the perfection of utopian societies is unattainable this side of the parousia, the return of Jesus Christ. It seems that Abba Poemen would agree.

Utopia as a concept is much discussed in the context of political theory and public policy. I do not wish to explore that here, though having found this saying I don’t doubt that I will reflect on it further in that context in a more appropriate forum at some later date. For now, however, I would rather examine the dangers of utopian thinking for our everyday, spiritual life. Continue reading

There was a story that some philosophers once came to test the monks. One of the monks came by dressed in a fine robe. The philosophers said to him: “Come here, you.” But he was indignant, and insulted them. Then another monk came by, a good person, a Libyan by race. They said to him: “Come here, you wicked old monk.” He came to them at once, and they began to hit him: but he turned the other cheek to them. Then the philosophers rose and did homage to him, saying: “Here is a monk indeed.” And they made him sit down in their midst, and asked him: “What do you do in this desert more than we do? You fast: and we fast also. You chastise your bodies and so do we. Whatever you do, we do the same.” The old man answered: “We trust in God’s grace, and keep watch on our minds.” They said: “That is what we cannot do.” And they were edified, and let him go.

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 16.16

I have always liked this story. It’s message is pretty straight-forward, but I will record here a few observations. Continue reading