Saturday, October 13, 2007

What I Learned Talking at the ESBV Conference

This afternoon I presented a paper at the meeting of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary-USA. The Society met at St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Pittsburgh, PA. If you click on the link above you can go to the ESBVM-USA's web page and see the conference announcement as well as the titles of the presented papers.

After I finish making some minor corrections and some expansion of a point or two, I will post my own contribution, "Apparitions in the Orthodox Tradition" for those who wish to take a peek at what I presented.

Think back on the afternoon I am not really sure how I would characterize the response of people to my presentation. Basically, I presented what I understand to be the Orthodox view of apparitions, visions, myrrh-streaming and wonder working icons. In brief, while we acknowledge that these as potential act of grace, especially in monastic literature, we tend to approach these things with great caution, skepticism and even hostility. These events, even when legitimate manifestations of God's grace, too easily lend themselves to being distorted and a source of spiritual delusion.

The desert fathers are rather clear, we must always approach the spiritual life with great sobriety. Absent this sobriety of spirit, we open ourselves up to demonic influence and a religious induced insanity (which I pointed out at least in my own experience is difficult if not impossible to overcome since the delusion undermines the very thing need to overcome it, the freed openness of the person to God's correcting grace).

Thinking about the different, if rather brief, conversations that I had that day, I noticed the same type of dangers I have seen in the Orthodox Church. A formal declaration of the orthodoxy of a practice or event outside of the normal parish experience is taken as a sufficient warrant for one's own devotion or participation. So, for example, if monasticism is an important, even essential and normative expression of Orthodox spirituality, my participation in a monastic discipline, even if I am not a monk, is not only acceptable, but above criticism.

But this simply isn't true.

The question is not simply is this or that practice or event orthodox (or Orthodox), but is it one that I am called to participate in? And if I am, to what degree ought I to participate in something outside the normal practice of the Church? Should, for example, my love of monasticism be expressed by the imitation of monastic discipline or should it simply serve as a aid to humility by it reminding me of how much more strenuous the Christian life can be lived?

Marriage, monasticism, ordination, are all good things and great gifts from God. But it is a sign of a very serious delusion if I think that I ought to participate in them simply because they are good. God calls some to marriage, others to monasticism, others to ordination. Whatever objective value they might have, the real question is what do they mean for me subjectively.

The merely formal affirmation that something is good is not a sufficient warrant for my participation. Much less does this formal affirmation give me permission to tell others that they must participate in them.

In the face of apparitions, visions, myrrh-streaming and wonder working icons, the real test is not objective, but subjective. Does my attraction or participation or devotion in or to them foster in me obedience to Christ and the life He has called me to live?

We must, I think, exercise great caution and prudence whenever we seek to go beyond what is given to us in the ordinary practice of the Church. The more I feel in myself the need to do things that, intentionally or not, mark me as special, the more likely it is that I am following my own ego.

I must also be very cautious that my faith rises above the merely formal. It is insufficient to say that this or that practice is acceptable. Failing to do so is like confusing the fact that someone might objectively be a good spouse with being a good spouse for me. Objective validity does not guarantee, much less mandate, subjective participation.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory